Keep Out of the Water: Race and the Black Surfer in White Wash

“Black people don’t surf” is a stereotype both investigated and refuted by White Wash, which examines the historical prejudices that have kept African Americans segregated from water sports as well as the contemporary efforts to rebut them. Narrated by Ben Harper and scored by the Roots, Ted Woods’s documentary commences with the big picture, tracing the modern notion of surfing as a pastime of blond-haired, blue-eyed white elites to its origins in slavery and Jim Crow, which—first to prevent escape from captivity, and then to publicly marginalize—kept blacks away from and out of the water. Using the typical mélange of archival photos, film clips, illustrations, and sound bites from historians and athletes, Woods’s central argument proves compelling if somewhat cursorily addressed by a hasty centuries-spanning recap. More gripping are both the director’s related discussion of how history is written by the reigning dominant culture, as well as interviews in which black Californians recount their personal coming-of-age experiences attempting to balance a love of surfing with hostile white and black peer pressures. Even at 78 minutes, White Wash pads its material through repetition but remains a proficient portrait of how increased social, economic, and geographic opportunity fosters diversity—in life and out on the waves.

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