Understanding Wash. U.’s public stance on diversity

Matthew Wallace | Staff Writer

Washington University’s Twitter account—something you think about less than the rock museum in Rudolph Hall. Well, maybe until yesterday when the account congratulated the film “La La Land” on its many awards and how it “powerfully reflects race in Hollywood” while linking to an article written by a faculty member.

The article is a critique of “La La Land” by Todd Decker, the department chair for music in the College of Arts & Sciences. Decker criticizes the film for its use of the main character, Seb, as the savior of jazz. Not only is this a rehashing of a tired argument of “defending” and “saving” jazz, but Gosling is white. Having a white savior, in jazz or in general, creates the narrative that all the problems experienced by a minority can be solved by a well-intentioned white male.

While I commend the University for giving one of its professors a public forum to criticize the issue of diversity in “La La Land,” the tweet and article are still problematic.
The school may have kept the article live, but both deserve further examination as public declarations of the school’s stance on diversity and race.

The tweet, before it was deleted, read, “Congratulations to La La Land on many awards! The critically acclaimed film powerfully reflects race in Hollywood.” What strikes me as odd is the language of the tweet. It congratulates the film as though it swept its awards and nothing else of note happened at the Oscars. It completely disregards the other remarkable films of 2016 (namely, “Moonlight”) and paints “La La Land” as a revolutionary movie that stands well above any other film.

But the second sentence is where I believe lies the reason it was deleted. The film “powerfully reflects race in Hollywood.” Really? A movie where only one person of color has a significant part reflects race? For the University to take take a simplistic look at the movie and how it glosses over the subject of race in Hollywood serves as a reminder that Wash. U. has a long way to go on really understanding how to discuss race in a constructive manner.

Given its own tenuous history with diversification and how the St. Louis community views the school, it would be best if Wash. U. took more receptive role in the conversation on diversity for now. The response by Decker serves as tangible evidence that the University has made strides in recognizing and combatting some racial issues its student body has become increasingly more concerned about. But even that falls short.

The article written by Decker touches on a lot of good points, but he falls into the same thinking as he accuses the director of having. Decker uses actor Fred Astaire, a renowned white actor in the early days of Hollywood, as a symbol of a white savior that fits the role Ryan Gosling tries to play. He sets up Astaire as the guy who is “saving” jazz the right way, in comparison to the impassioned, distanced acting of Gosling. He reels off Astaire’s moments of when he helped black musicians as if there is a magical number that will make his example infallible. Astaire may be a better version of Seb, the character Gosling plays, but that is not enough to overlook the questionable exaggeration on Astaire’s “heroic” work in Hollywood.

Many students have looked to shame the University for deleting the tweet, seeing this action as an admission of guilt of some kind. Others have questioned why the University would even publicly acknowledge a film on social media. I am choosing a different path. I am going to congratulate Wash. U. on the attempt as well as the subsequent deletion.

In deleting the tweet, I see a Wash. U. willing to correct the mistakes it will make on the path towards a more equal and inclusive student population. We have all slipped up on a promise we have made to ourselves to be better than we once were. We don’t hesitate to give ourselves a second and third and fourth and fifth chance, so why not give the University one right now?

If you truly believe in this new direction Wash. U. is heading in and see Decker’s article at least as a willingness to engage in challenging topics that the university confronts on a daily basis (even if that article had issues), then don’t give up now when it has just begun. Those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and it seems like Wash. U. learned that recently. Let’s make sure it sticks.

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