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The slaves of La La Land – and South Los Angeles

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Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy
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Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy

The film musical “La La Land” is being celebrated as a love letter to L.A. But the movie’s darker heart lies in a brief, devastating critique, delivered by the jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling.

“That’s L.A.,” he says. “They worship everything and they value nothing.”

There has been no better recent summary of the California struggle – with the notable exception of the 2015 novel, “The Sellout,” whose author, Paul Beatty, became the first American to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

“La La Land” and “The Sellout” seem very different. The film, an Oscar favorite, is being sold as a glossy escapist romance about white artists who hang out in Griffith Park. The novel is a taboo-trashing racial satire about an African American farmer of watermelons and weed who reintroduces segregation to his South L.A. neighborhood.

But the film and the novel are two of the most thought-provoking and entertaining documents of today’s California. And both are about the same problem: That for all our celebration of game changers in this state, we offer precious little space or support to those who dare upset our status quo.

The film and the movie also make the same provocative argument about how to break through the Golden State’s stacked deck: Don’t be afraid to do things that are totally nuts. Both works specifically champion a self-sacrificing craziness, a willingness to surrender yourself and the people you love to focus on making your mark.

“La La Land” makes a straightforward case for crazy. Gosling’s musician is the film’s romantic hero, because of his uncompromising commitment to restoring traditional jazz even though he can’t pay his bills. Emma Stone’s frustrated actress only inches closer to the red carpet when she produces a one-woman play in a theater she can’t afford to rent. In the audition scene in which she finally breaks through, she embraces the virtues of craziness in song: “A bit of madness is key to give us new colors to see. Who knows where it will lead us?”

Beatty’s novel similarly suggests that, to smash through the California looking-glass world, the sanest course is to go over the edge. After the city of L.A. removes his minority neighborhood from the map, the farmer fights this fire of systemic discrimination by violating legal and cultural norms. Most outlandishly, he takes a slave, who helps him segregate the local school, hospital, bus line and businesses with signs reading “Colored Only” and “No Whites Allowed.” These unconstitutional acts plant seeds of progress (lower crime, higher test scores, more polite behavior).

“The racism takes them back,” the farmer says. “Makes them humble. Makes them realize how far we’ve come and, more important, how far we have to go.”

Both the book and the film wrestle with the conflict between loyalty to one’s dreams and selling out – and just how hard it has become to tell the difference between the two. And both get at a painful paradox. We know we must hold onto real people to be truly human. But in L.A., we learn we must loosen our grip on reality to make an impact.

In this way, both masterpieces ultimately raise the question of whether making your mark here is worth the cost. No character in either work is happier than the farmer’s slave in Beatty’s satirized world, an actor from “The Little Rascals” who refuses all efforts to free him. Playing the game of being a star here is so maddening that he prefers the simplicity of servitude.

After all, if you’re going to live in a place that values nothing, why fight so hard to be something?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be reached at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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