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Friday, March 02, 2012

Surfing: It's a Black Thing

This appeared in the Feb 29 edition of The Honolulu Weekly:

“Charlie don’t surf!” was the mad Colonel’s cry in Apocalypse Now. Today, the same shorthand applies to African-Americans. Black people don’t surf. Or swim. Their bodies have less buoyancy. It’s a white people’s thing.

Of all these stereotypes, only the last would be hooted out of the lineup in multi-racial Hawaii. But for director Ted Woods and the team behind the 2011 documentary White Wash–premiering tonight at the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Academy of Arts–demolishing such shibboleths is a crusade with benefits. White Wash is not just about surfing and not just about race, but about the joy-in-nature that is the genius of the sport.

White Wash’s message is that such joy is incompatible with hate, despite the localism that can shake a surfer’s faith on any given outing. The film’s swift pacing allows a stunning string of jarring juxtapositions: We leap from archival footage of brutal assaults on blacks at beaches to lush contemporary surf footage to funky North Shore hangouts, all underscored by a thumping good soundtrack by Black Thought and The Roots. Surfing’s brash challenge culture turns out to be a good match for the civil rights movement: Both share an impulse to call out bullshit where they see it. Having Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and surf historian Sam George making the calls, along with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., historians, sociologists and Bruce Wigo, president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, totally amp the righteous vibe.

But White Wash is much more than feel-good call-and-response. The history here is revisionist and risible: Surfing is a black thing (early slave traders reported surfing in Ghana, Hawaiians were classified as black in the American slave economy, Duke Kahanamoku was met with racial hostility on his tours). Black people did swim like everyone else (until slavers and plantation owners made it taboo, punishable by public drowning, to prevent escapes). Blacks do like the beach (but were banned from beaches all over the South and especially in Southern California, the birthplace of modern surfing, until the late 1950s).

The black surfers interviewed don’t make any predictions for a Michael Jordan of surfing, and more to the point, say they don’t need one. They just want to surf. But if the history of the sport tells us anything, it’s that a single champion can arise from any ethnic group despite statistical evidence of its impossibility. Arthur Ashe broke through in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf. The high-performance shredding approach to surfing owes a lot to Buttons Kaluhiokalani, who is part black. The Kahuna said to Gidget, “Girls don’t surf.” And so on. The moral? Don’t listen to experts. Especially when we live in a time when a Chinese kid from Palo Alto can make NBA history in two short weeks.

Elevate and Being Elmo also screen this week at the Doris Duke. The former follows a group of really tall Senegalese teens who are groomed at a special academy for entry into US prep schools. It’s easy to love the young men and to care about their fates, but the heart of the film is a celebration of a cynical meat market. Nobody questions a system that has corrupted high school and college sports beyond repair. Director Anne Buford includes scenes that infer the quid pro quo that produces an I-20 visa and a shot at the American Dream. But she never follows the money, or even pretends to care.

Being Elmo makes up for all that, brimming over with love as its namesake does. The puppeteers behind Sesame Street and The Muppets, who gave a kid from Baltimore’s “Chocolate City,” Kevin Clash, a chance to join their eccentric guild, love the young sock-puppet prodigy who invented Elmo’s cuddly persona; he adores and reveres them. Through cameos of the world of early children’s television, the film also serves as a testament to the best years of all of our lives. Pack extra-strength hankies.

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