Black surfers find endless summer in Whitewash documentary

OPINION - Before I saw "Whitewash," the images of surfing that were etched in my mind were from the beach party movies of the mid 1960s...

“You have got to see this film!”

It was the slight twinge of urgency in my friend Shimoda’s voice that prompted me to see the film “Whitewash,” an independent documentary about black surfers directed by Ted Woods.

Shimoda Emanuel, a jewelry designer and artist by trade, told me she and her husband Luther had seen the film in Harlem at Marcus Garvey Park one summer evening. It was one of a number of independent documentary and feature films being shown as part of the Imagenation outdoor film series.

Imagenation is a Harlem-based media arts organization that hosts a variety of art-house, cross-cultural exhibitions. They’re known to have a gift of finding the most interesting independent works from around the world and “Whitewash” fit right into their genre of film presentations.

After seeing the film, Luther was so inspired that the very next day he called the New York Surf School
and scheduled a surfing lesson.

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Before I saw “Whitewash,” the images of surfing that were etched in my mind were from the beach party movies of the mid 1960s — the ones that starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. They always seemed to be having so much fun frolicking on the beaches of southern California with their surfboards in tow.

Growing up in Queens, New York, I knew nothing about the sport. My family didn’t frequent the beach, and when we took trips to the Caribbean, it was to visit family. None of my relatives in Antigua or the Dominican Republic surfed, so all the knowledge I had about the sport came from those movies — and I never saw a black surfer in those films.

Although “”Whitewash””: is about surfing, it takes a raw and real look at the concept of race and sports. Woods said he was inspired to do the film because of a brief conversation he had with his friend and producer, Airrion Copeland.

One weekend, Copeland told Woods he was going to surf, and that took Woods by surprise. Copeland is black and Woods is white. Woods said that mention of the sport sparked a conversation about race and surfing which got them to look at the bigger picture of the history of beaches, pools and segregation.

Woods did his homework. He was able to weave effects of slavery, the colonization of Hawaii, civil rights and the history of surfing into one seamless story. The images of modern surfers and archival footage were used creatively to guide the narrative of the film. Grammy Award winner Ben Harper did the narration along with Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter. The Roots also did the soundtrack to the film.

“This isn’t a film about surfing,” Woods said. “This is really a film about so much more – a unique way to look at race.”