January 21, 2009
For Ted Woods, timing is like the ocean.
"Opportunity presents itself randomly," he said. "It’s the same way a wave moves."
The first-time writer/director/producer has had a series of serendipitous moments this past year that led to the premiere of his surfing documentary "Whitewash" at the X-Dance Action Sports Film Festival on Saturday.
The film, which chronicles the small number of African American surfers and the history of black surfing, was a late entry into the fest as in two weeks ago. Once festival director Brian Wimmer heard about the film through a friend, he knew it had to be a part of the line-up.
"This is what we like to put out there and show," Wimmer said.
The topic of black surfing definitely warrants a double take, but that is where the premise for the movie begins.
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"The film explores the complexity of race through the eyes of the ocean," said producer Airrion Copeland.
Woods, a white man from the Midwest, moved to the Los Angeles area a few years ago and met Copeland, a black surfer. He got Woods into the sport and into a world that Woods didn’t realize existed. Despite having never made a documentary film, Woods became passionate on the subject. In college, he had created his own major in peace and justice studies and had always been interested in race and equality and America’s troubled past. And so began a long process of research, filming, and interviewing.
"When we started the project, we didn’t know what we’d find," Woods said.
The film rhythmically takes viewers through an odyssey of sorts, sharing the lives of black surfers, young and old, and explaining why the combination is so rare.
Woods travels all the way back to the slave trade, where coastal Africans were loaded on slave ships for America and then kept away from the water so they wouldn’t escape. Eventually the knowledge of swimming disappeared from the culture. Then it’s over to Hawaii for a look at the origins of surfing and how it became the sport of today. Years later, during the golden age of swimming at the turn of the century, it was segregation that kept Blacks away from the water. As the century wore on, discriminatory laws kept black children out of pools, and pools out of the inner city.
Woods spent months in libraries and universities in California, Florida and Hawaii finding footage of a waterless past for African Americans and evidence of the few that managed to find the ocean despite the odds. When Woods wasn’t researching he was taking his camera to the beach, catching hours of footage of the surfers.
"Whitewash" engages experts in discussions on swimming, surfing and sport history, recounting stories of discrimination and the struggle to get the black population back to the water. An interview on the basketball courts of New York City shows African American youth laughing at the notion of them swimming, unaware that history, not biology, was guiding the stereotype.
Copeland said these social constructs keep blacks away from the water. He said when he took a free surfing lesson five years ago, he was instantly hooked and believes others also would be if they were given the opportunity.
"After that first time, it was a done deal," Copeland said. "It’s a Zen experience."
He explains that once people feel the freedom to be in the water, it transcends race.
"Everyone finds their way in the calmness of the ocean," Copeland said.
But it’s the black surfers speaking throughout the film who give it the passion and spirit that embodies surfing itself. Describing it as more than a sport, but a lifestyle and state of mind, they are not willing to give it up no matter how many looks they get.
Woods is also able to capture the internal struggle of the surfers to blend the sport with their culture — to achieve the Zen-like state of mind that surfing offers, while not leaving their culture and their African American heritage behind. They don’t want to blend into mainstream surfing culture, but instead bring their own unique spin to the sport.
One East Coast surfer uses a board with drawings of slave ships on it. The board shows how surfing has allowed him to find freedom from a discriminatory past.
"It’s the power of how far we’ve come," Copeland said.
Woods was able to find most of the surfers through the Black Surfers Association. Research led him to an African American swim coach and a number of swimming and surfing historians. It was perfect timing once again that would lead Woods from one expert to the next.
"That happened a lot in the film," Woods said.
Editors Dan Munger and Brian Davison seamlessly connect the history with the surfers’ voices for a film keeps viewers engaged and doesn’t lose them in the information.
The movie is narrated by Ben Harper, a biracial man and a surfer himself, which gives even more credence to the story.
"Ben was really stoked to work on the film," Woods said. "That’s something he knows about and he knows that this energy is a movement."
A soundtrack by The Roots, with selections by Erykah Badu and others, underlines the film with more pieces of African American culture.
"They all wanted to share this energy," Copeland said.
For being a white man, Woods is remarkably enlightened. After a showing of the film, he shared stories of going to Civil War memorials with his mother to learn about America’s racist past.
"I’ve always been interested in race as a topic," Woods said.
He takes this knowledge and sensitivity and tells a story that transcends his background and shares the story of struggle and passion.
The film ends with an urban teen taking a lesson run by the Black Surfers Association and an older African American surfer talking about how blessed he is to be one of the few.
Munger said he hopes this movie opens up the door even more — that people remember that surfing started as a Hawaiian sport open to everyone that only surfing history in the last century made the sport discriminatory.
"It’s all about rewriting the story of surfing," he said.
Coming just two days before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration and three days before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president, the film’s theme of change becomes even more powerful.
"It couldn’t be better," Woods said. "We couldn’t ask for anything more. We’re contributing something to the larger conversation about race."
The movie has yet to be picked up by a distributor, but the men are hopeful that the success at X-Dance. They also plan on using their time in Utah to meet other filmmakers and partake in some of the workshops and panels the Sundance Film Festival has to offer.
For more information on the film, visit http://www.trespassproductions.com.