“Why are there so few black surfers?” That’s the question posed by Ted Woods’s incisive, if ultimately repetitive, documentary White Wash, and to answer the question the film digs deep into U.S. political and social history. Drawing on Ben Harper’s narration and the talking-head testimony of both cultural historians (including “surf historians” and “swim historians”) and the wave riders themselves, the film skillfully intertwines joint narratives of race in America and the rise of the country’s beach culture, explaining how a sport likely invented by people of color is now seen as the liliest of lily-white pursuits.
The story of American racial atrocity has been well rehearsed and the account provided in Woods’s film (taking in the necessary progression of slavery, Jim Crow, nominal equality) feels a tad too much like a remedial civics lesson. But as background to the less well-known history of water culture, it proves necessary. Woods traces a narrative of surfing that takes us from the Hawaiian isles where the sport flourished before Captain Cook’s late-18th-century landing and attempt to suppress the local culture, through the early 20th century where the love of the wave remained intact in the former Sandwich Islands and was popularized as part of a push to revive tourism in the region, its spread to the rest of the country (particularly California), and its rise in popularity in tandem with the modern conception of aquatic culture, which took off following the 1914 standardization of water safety regulations.
But it’s in the conjunction of the two narratives that the film breaks new ground. The talking heads relate how blacks were systematically excluded from this burgeoning new culture, relegated to a few Jim Crow beaches which often came under civic attack from the surrounding (white) communities. It also traces the cultural image that posits blacks not being able to swim (indeed, 60 percent of African-American children can’t) to the beginnings of the slave era in which formerly aquatic Africans were rigorously discouraged from that activity since the slaveholders feared them taking to the water as a means of escape. Finally, the film makes the clear the prejudices in the black community against its members who undertake surfing, the wave riders often coming under fire for trying to “act white,” whereas, as the film makes clear, there’s nothing inherently “racial” about the sport, its identity strictly a process of long-evolving cultural determination.
Smoothly edited, smart without being imposingly so, White Wash feels simultaneously dense with information and analysis and as pleasantly breezy as a day at the beach—at least for its first half. For a 78-minute film that offers in-depth treatment of a fascinating subject, Woods’s doc winds up getting bogged down in endlessly reiterated talking points during its not so incisive second half. Having effectively made all its points by the 40-minute mark, the film simply repeats them over and over for the rest of the running time, generally divorced, in this go round, from the historical context in which they were first offered up. By the time the subjects are reduced to reciting let’s-all-get-along platitudes (surfing’s for everyone, dude!), the film has devolved into spitting out the sort of simplistic non-arguments which seemed anathema to Woods’s project just three reels earlier.