A Dream of Whiteness: Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark" and Jazz in "La La Land"

La La Land presents itself to us as a film about a dream -- a dream of the Hollywood screen (or as the first song has it, a “technicolor world made out of music and machines”). The film sells skeptical viewers on its sometimes spectacular song sequences by suggesting that each song is itself a kind of dream. And Mia’s “Audition” song at the end of the film only underlines the dream motif: “A bit of madness is key/ to give us new colors to see.” The color referred to in these songs are the colors of the Hollywood dream fantasy, but I would argue they are not new colors. 

What they are is a very old and familiar dream -- through which white writers and performers have produced an idea of whiteness against the backdrop of African American cultural artifacts. The Hollywood dream of La La Land is, in short, a dream of whiteness.

Within the world of the film, Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian is obsessed with a strange and quirky commitment to vinyl records and increasingly obscure music that has fallen out of fashion in a consumerist, pop-obsessed society (“No one likes jazz, not even you,” he tells Mia at one point in frustration). He meets and converts a skeptical Mia to his way of thinking: you can’t just listen to jazz, you have to “see… what’s at stake,” he tells her. He takes her to a club and helps her understand the improvisatory nature of the music. He insists that real jazz is not Kenny G., it’s something powerful and visionary (note that he does not say, “Black”). In the scene in a jazz club where they first have this conversation, the film demonstrates visually that the music is a Black cultural artifact -- the musicians in this scene are all Black (see: the image above from the film). But Gosling's character doesn’t fill in the rest of the blanks in the story or name the parts played by Whiteness and Blackness. When he talks about Kenny G.’s approach to jazz, he is talking about a white musician. Tellingly, when he mentions a jazz musician committing an act of violence -- Sidney Bechet -- that’s a Black musician.

Jazz is now historical. It started as Black music; over the course of its history it was widely appropriated and repackaged by white artists. Arguably this process led to a total sanitizing of the idea of jazz -- so Mia can describe “jazz” as synonymous with Kenny G., not, say Miles Davis. Within the fantasy world of the film, Sebastian’s commitment to traditional jazz -- and his rejection of a path that involves a diluted, sell-out jazz-funk-pop band fronted by Keith (John Legend) -- pays off. At the end of the film he runs his own night club; he realizes his dream.

The critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) succinctly pointed out the irony in Chazelle’s depiction of a white jazz purist and a crowd-pleasing Black band-leader:

But I'm also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum.

Wait just a minute!

The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout? (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hollywood Reporter, February 15, 2017)
The problem of the erasure of Black cultural origins in La La Land is much bigger than this one particular film. Still, the film seems strikingly effective as an entry point to a problem that is very broad and deep in American life. (Maybe because its 'politics' otherwise seem to be benign?) Despite the centrality of Black music to its story, the place La La Land wants to take us is to a place where the originality of that music is relegated to the background. It's the context that enables Sebastian's art, but it can't be the text itself. I would argue that the film’s relationship to Black music lines up with just about perfectly with similar patterns of erasure, blindness, and misrepresentation Toni Morrison talked about in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

Let’s take a step back and introduce Playing in the Dark a bit more broadly.

First off, Morrison mentions jazz at the very beginning of the book, with reference to a passage in Marie Cardinal’s novel The Words to Say It. There, the music of Louis Armstrong precipitates a psychic crisis in the narrator: “Gripped by panic at the idea of dying there in the middle of spasms, stomping feet, and the crowd howling, I ran into the street like someone possessed.” Toni Morrison goes on to provide a series of remarkably compelling readings of as she puts it, “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.”
What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination is of paramound interest because it may be possible to discover, through a close look at literary ‘blackness,’ the nature--even the cause--of literary ‘whiteness.’ (Morrison, 9)
The kind of reading method Morrison employs in her book is what some critics would call dialectical reading (Edward Said would describe it, using musical terminology as “contrapuntal.”) She sees Whiteness and Blackness as intertwined, as producing each other, in American life. Whiteness is a dominant, but it depends upon its subordinate to give it shape, even though it also aims to relegate its other to a position of marginality and partial erasure. Sometimes the marginalization is direct and obvious (as she shows happening in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not: the Black character on the boat to whom Hemingway refuses to grant agency). At other times, the connection is more associative -- requiring the critic to fill in gaps left by authors whose failure to grant full subjectivity to their Black characters is symptomatic (a great example of this more associative reading method might be with Morrison’s account of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl).

Here’s another passage from Morrison that speaks to this more oblique mode of reading:
Explicit or implicit, the Africanist presence informs in compelling and inescapable ways the texture of American literature. It is a dark and abiding presence, there for the literary imagination as both a visible and an invisible mediating force. Even, and especially, when American texts are not ‘about’ Africanist presences or characters or narrative or idiom, the shadow hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation. It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature) understood their ‘Americanness’ as an opposition to the resident black population. Race, in fact, now functions as a metaphor so necessary to the construction of Americanness that it rivals the old pseudo-scientific and class-informed racisms whose dynamics we are more used to deciphering. (Morrison, 46-47)
It’s in passages like these that one gets a hint of the ambition and scope of this argument -- it goes to the core of the construction of Americanness itself.

One way for critics to try and prove her assertion (in such a short book I think we have to take her readings as suggestive rather than dispositive) might be to go deeper into the ways in which what she calls the Africanist other was a constitutive presence and absence from other works in the American canon. (And American literature scholars have been doing this, in a growing sub-field focused on “whiteness studies.”)

Another response might be -- and this is one that comes more naturally to me -- might be to cross-reference her approach to representations of Blackness in texts by white American writers with comparable representations of various Oriental and African others in works in the British tradition:

“As a writer reading, I came to realise the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflective, an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. It requires hard work not to see this.”
This is remarkably parallel to what Edward Said notes in Orientalism with respect to western conceptions of non-western cultures. When American writers construct a discourse of Africanism in their works, they are constructing an inverted mirror -- a fantasy of otherness. They are not, by and large, actually incorporating the actual voices and narratives of people of African descent. When British writers like H. Rider Haggard or Joseph Conrad dreamed of “savages” in sub-Saharan Africa, they were not seeing and hearing real African people; they were imagining an Other to themselves said more about their fantasies than it did to the ethnographic reality of the people they were ostensibly encountering along the Nile or the Congo.

There might be a third way of responding, which is to extend and expand Morrison’s method to a range of contemporary references, including in popular culture. One sees a version of “Playing in the Dark” in the long legacy of white musicians appropriating and commodifying Black musical traditions, from the blues, to jazz, to rock n roll, to hip hop. Al Jolson was playing in the dark; Elvis Presley was playing in the dark; Dave Brubeck was playing in the dark; Eminem and Macklemore and Vanilla Ice and Post Malone -- all playing in the dark, and taking it to the bank.

This is not to say there is something lacking in the art of Dave Brubeck or George Gershwin. Actually, I think Morrison would say that the pattern of appropriating Black cultural artifacts and whitewashing them is a fundamental cultural process. For white musicians and for white audiences, Black music is a site of dangerous otherness and wild excess -- a site for the exploration of taboo sexuality -- a journey, in effect to the “dark side” (again, see the quote from Marie Cardinal in the Morrison along these lines: jazz music seemed to produce a rupture within the narrator’s soul). It represents freedom and a path to the uncensoring of the Puritan self. In another way of looking at it -- and I can’t help but think of the passage relating to William Dunbar in the second section of Morrison’s Playing in the Dark here -- the incorporation of Black music alongside the constitutive exclusion of actual Black people is not just an American story, it’s the American story. In short, it’s through “playing in the dark” that white Americans have in fact constructed the category of whiteness.

Another interesting passage from Morrison:

“A second topic in need of critical attention is the way an Africanist idiom is used to establish difference or, in a later period, to signal modernity. We need to explicate the ways in which specific themes, fears, forms of consciousness, and class relationships are embedded int he use of Africanist idiom: how the dialogue of black characters is construed as an alien, estranging dialect made deliberately unintelligible by spellings contrived to disfamiliarize it; how Africanist practices are employed to evoke the tension between speech and speechlessness; how it is used to establish a cognitive world split between speech and text, to reinforce class distinctions and otherness as well as to assert privlege and power; how it serves as a marker and vehicle for illegal sexuality, fear of madness, expulsion, self-loathing. Finally, we should look at how a black idiom and the sensibilities it has come to imply are appropriated for the associative value they lend to modernism--to being hip, sophisticated, ultra-urbane.” (52)
Again, I recognize La La Land here, both in its superficial stylistic elements (the hip and sophisticated feel of the film is connected to its appropriation of Blackness), and more substantively. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian uses a traditional form of Black music to signal his rejection of contemporary consumer culture (“they worship everything, but value nothing,” he says contemptuously at one point). That’s what makes him a dreamer and a visionary (notice that the film does not frame his actual cultural borrowing and mimicry as borrowing -- in the fantasy world of the film, it’s seen as originary). And remember the clip we looked at earlier: Sebastian said, “they used jazz to communicate.” Notice what he didn’t say: that these people who created jazz in a “flophouse in New Orleans” were Black people. Their language was, following the passage from Morrison quoted above, fragmentary and wild. It needed a white romantic lead to narrate it and give it shape and vision.

(One question all of this raises of course is where does this leave Emma Stone’s character, Mia? At first she is a jazz skeptic, but then as a convert she pressures Sebastian not to give up on his dream. Do white women play in the space of Black music the way white male musicians have for so long?)

As a final comment, it seems appropriate to end by gesturing to the song Jay-Z released in the summer of 2017 on 4:44 -- entitled “Moonlight.” On the surface -- and in its title -- this song refers to the infamous scene at the Academy Awards in 2017, when the Best Picture Award was mistakenly given to La La Land rather than the African American-directed Moonlight. The mishap seemed to underline the problem we have been talking about: the overwriting of a black cultural artifact and black creativity by whiteness. And Jay-Z played with this in the song with a double irony. First, he never says the word “Moonlight” in the song -- “We stuck in La La Land” is the chorus. However, the rapper makes no actual reference to the film La La Land in the song either (he only uses the phrase). The song as a whole is a lament for how hip hop as a musical form has been turned into a bankable commodity by music industry executives, at the expense of the artists themselves.

We Stuck in La La Land
Even when we win, we gon’ lose

Jay-Z’s “La La Land” is a land where Black artists lose even when they win, where record executives profit while artists struggle and lose their way. It’s also, I would argue, a land dominated by a logic of racial inscription that seems so familiar because we’ve seen it so many times before. “La La Land” is the American dream of whiteness on repeat.