It’s been almost a year since I published my 3000+ word piece of Whiplash. I’ve had more thoughts on the film, a work that continues to haunt me to this day. Perhaps I can exorcise some spectres by establishing more of my thoughts on the subject.
Certainly some of my anxiety over the film continues from its critical acclaim, a wave of enthusiasm that in some respects tampers the discourse on the film. Richard Brody’s piece on the film, for instance, has the title “Getting Jazz Right at the Movies”, while a different title (available in a google search) is “‘Whiplash’ Gets Jazz All Wrong”, an indication perhaps of the piece’s original title. I suspect that because of the film’s overwhelming accolades, Brody’s biting criticism trimmed to fit the field.
The White Man’s Power
Thinking more about the homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs Fletcher uses, I was at least encouraged to find J. Bryan Lowder’s essay on the film’s use of homophobia, an illustration that someone has at least noticed and questioned it. Of course, I wish his final judgements were more concrete and biting, but he at least raises the question as to how and why Whiplash uses homophobia.
This leads my back around to slurs particularly absent in the film, racial epithets. In a room full of male students, a good number of them black, Fletcher resorts only to homophobic, anti-Semitic, and fat-phobic slurs to bully his class. While each type of slur has its own history (and are thus incomparable in many respects), it’s telling how the film calibrates Fletcher’s abuse to be as unrelenting and shocking as possible while still being “realistic.”
In an interview with The Dissolve (R.I.P.), writer/director Damien Chazelle had this to say about Fletcher’s language:
“There’s not a single demographic group in existence that [Fletcher] doesn’t go after at some point in the movie, but there’s almost no logic to it.
Of course there is a logic to his choice of words, all stemming from his ideological power as a white man. If Fletcher was true to the ideology he upholds (pressure and crush your students until they either break down your students until them make something of themselves), it would be “in character” for his to use racial slurs. Of course, that would take us out of the film: how could we believe this (tenured?) teacher would hold a position in a music academy if he said that? Whiplash therefore balances a fine line between “believable” and “unbelievable” physical and emotional abuse. Of course, while there is certainly a lot of pressure and horror stories associated with musicianship, I find none of the film believable as Fletcher physically and emotional berates students for (ostensibly) years without consequence.
Race haunts this film, an unrecognized spectre undergirding its ideological formation. When Fletcher first enters into Andrew’s classroom, he effectively silences his black colleague, indirectly judging his student placement efforts as poor when criticizing the only female musician in the film to only have first chair “because she’s pretty.” Black voices are very much silent in the film, their presence largely subsumed by the ego contests between Fletcher and Andrew. But is that the point?
Is this film ultimately critiquing the power dynamics it portrays? That’s a hard question to answer.
Take the ending for example. My previous writing on the film notes that any ambiguity is false in terms of who has “won”, as Andrew literally hasn’t played the drums since his tutelage with Fletcher, therefore his “success” in the end (if you can call it that) logically derives from Fletcher’s abusive tactics.
As Dan Olson notes: Andrew “sells his soul for a pat on the head from the devil.” But is that perhaps the point, that we should walk away from the film saddened that Andrew submitted to Fletcher in the end? Are we to walk away from the film all the wiser from Andrew’s destructive journey in the white male ego? As FILM CRIT HULK puts it: “THE ARGUMENT AS TO HOW MUCH OF THE ENDING OF IS EITHER A VALIDATION OR CRITICISM IS BOTH RIGHTFULLY AMBIGUOUS. BUT PROBLEMATICLY SO [sic].” If it’s a validation, the film has presented a terrible, inaccurate, immoral message: be better than the abuser by showing him up. If it’s a criticism, it’s a criticism that explores the white male ego at the expense of minority and underrepresented voices, while completely misrepresenting jazz.
Jazz being a historically and culturally important work of black musicians, the lack of substantive black characters in the film is unfortunate. People of colour in the film are merely supporting players with no agency or personality of their own, save the brief appearance by a black female lawyer contracted by another family. Andrew’s classmates rarely interact with him, an act that further heightens the films delusions about music as a solo operation while limiting the roles of the black players. Andrew gets a girlfriend, with her only purposing in the film to be ditched later.
Whiplash is also a film that mangles jazz. As Jon Newey, editor of magazine Jazzwise, notes, “It is a warped, retrogressive portrayal of jazz and big band cutting sessions.” As Tyran Grillo wonderfully explains “the film fails to recognize the history of jazz as such, treating it more as a code devoid of emotional variables.” The criticism on the film’s portray of jazz goes on, illustrating how many a jazz fan are perturbed by the film’s vision of the genre.
The ideal Andrew seeks is the prestigious jazz musician, playing Carnegie Hall and winning awards. This ideal is one of white privilege, as indicated by the final scene as Andrew plays to a crowd of rich white patrons who can apparently make or break his career. This is of course a ridiculous notion, and so is his ideal: he could make it bigger and better by shoring up his talents anywhere else outside of jazz and become successful. But his ideals get in the way. As the poster of his idol, Buddy Rich, on Andrew’s wall says: IF YOU DON’T HAVE ABILITY, YOU WIND UP PLAYING IN A ROCK BAND.
So the white male ego strikes again, ultimately limiting Andrew’s potential. If that was the film’s intended message, it comes at the costs of few people actually understanding the film’s sets ups (the final confrontation as the end all be all of his career) and Andrew’s ideals (what a jazz musician truly is) are falsehoods. Never in the film is it clear that jazz is something more that Big Band, more than Carnegie Hall, more than such competing egos. Perhaps I don’t trust an audience enough to see Andrew’s ideals as destructive lies, but the film doesn’t either, or at least does not make it tangibly clear.
Even if Whiplash was a good exploration of the male white ego, I would be uncomfortable with how the film misrepresents an entire musical genre historically rooted in the black experience to make its point. The fact that Whiplash ultimately fails damns the film all the more.