Friday, September 23, 2011

Ted Woods' WHITE WASH explores the connection between Blacks and water

Sure, it could be a better movie, but that's pretty much beside the point. WHITE WASH, the new documentary from first-time filmmaker Ted Woods is such a fascinating look at a little-explored topic that it simply demands to be seen -- and then discussed. Its subject is ostensibly Black surfers (yes, they do exist), but the movie goes much deeper, exploring the very connection (or seeming lack of one) between American Blacks and one of the four primal elements: water.

Early on in the film, the director and his narrator, Ben Harper tell us, "America's history of racial exclusion, both consciously and uncon-sciously, has made Blacks in the world of surfing all but nonexis-tent."  In addition to Black history, Woods (shown above, left, with Michael Green, founder of Brooklyn Surfing), gives us some surfing history, too -- as James Cook, in 1778, arrives in the Hawaiian Islands and catches sight of the natives enjoying the sport.

From there it's but a skip and a jump to Blacks and swimming, slavery and the use of rivers for escape. This is history as we've been told it previously, but here, with the place of water raised to the ultimate, it results in a story of how racism, finance and water culture combine in ways that I trust you will not have heard before. And while its was clearly in the (seemingly) best interests of Whites to discourage Blacks from approaching the water, what is even more strange and troubling is how and why Blacks have accepted this scenario to the point where they themselves discourage Black surfing. "It's a white sport!"

Yes, well -- it certainly wasn't originally. One of the most revelatory segments in the movie shows us a scene from Bruce Brown's famous ode to surfing The Endless Summer that takes place in African and would seem to indicate that the natives there had never before seen surfers until the white boys showed up to amaze them. According to this film, that scene was simply not true.


We also learn about The Inkwell (above, and not the one on Martha's Vineyard, but a section of Southern California beach near Santa Monica that was frequented by Blacks back in the 1950s and 60s -- until it was suddenly off limits to them -- and one of the early Black American surfers Nick Gabaldon. Among the several Black surfers the moviemaker highlights (in truth, there just aren't that many of them) is Sal Masekela, who tells us a lot of interesting stuff, most piquantly in his statement that he has never understood the phrase about how you "catch a wave," On the contrary, he explains, it is always "the wave that catches you."

The movie makes use of some terrific archival footage, well-integrated into the whole. While I might have wanted a little less music -- or little less volume (at times, it tends to drown everything out), this is a small carp, considering how eye-opening on several levels the film proves to be. In the final scenes, the documentary becomes an out-and-out paean to surfing -- but from the least likely folk you might imagine. Until, that is, you've seen this film.

White Wash, via Trespass Productions, opens today, Friday, September 23, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. And elsewhere, I would hope. This movie has far too much to say to both blacks and whites (all of us in between) for it not to be distributed more widely.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review. I came upon it on accident when I was looking for Martha's Vineyard Inkwell photo's. So glad I found it. I would love to see this movie. Where is it showing??

James van Maanen, said...

Hey, Anon--
Unfortunately WHITE WASH received a very limited theatrical release, and that was some months back. I don't think the film is out yet on DVD. But there are two other possibilities. If you can stream Netflix (or if you know anyone else who can), the film is currently available in that format. Also, you might try contacting the distributor by clicking the link for Trespass Productions in the last paragraph of my review. Once you're on the web site, click on CONTACT and send an email asking where else you might be able to view the film. I'm sure they'll want you to see it and will let you know.
And thanks for your comment!