Saturday, December 6, 2014

Lacey Schwartz | Little White Lie

living in a cocoon

Lacey Schwartz and Mehret Moandefro (writers), Lacey Schwartz (director) Little White Lie / 2014


How is a young girl, a light-skinned but clearly Black woman, growing up in comfortable Jewish family in Woodstock, New York, able to deny her own identity until, at the age of 16, her own classmates begin challenging her perceptions? Okay, she does look somewhat like her father’s dark-complexioned Sicilian great-grandfather! Her uncles, aunts, cousins, and numerous friends do not say a word to her about what their eyes must daily tell them, refusing to comment, evidently, even about their friend’s stubbornly frizzy hair. If one needed any evidence of the existence of mass hallucinations one might simply gaze upon the Schwartz family. As their daughter, Lacey, puts it “We are saw what we wanted to believe.” 
      The facts, when they become known as her parent’s relationship began to unravel, are simple, documented by what was right before their very eyes, so obvious that even when she left the questions regarding Lacey’s identity of her college application blank, Georgetown University declared her a Black student, and she was immediately welcomed into the Black Student Alliance. 
      How could anyone in Lacey’s place not feel completely betrayed when the simple facts are revealed. Her mother, Peggy, began an affair with a Black man, Rodney Parker, the same year she met Lucy’s father, continuing the affair for several years and remaining close with Rodney and his family throughout her married life. Despite all the “white lies” (quite obviously, there is far more here than “one” lie) the rest of the family themselves told Lacey, he mother secretly knew the truth, but withheld it, quite obviously, for fear of destroying a marriage which was, in large part, unfulfilling. But even when the relationship finally fell apart, Lacey’s father finally doing the simple arithmetic, Peggy never speaks the truth. Was there ever a moment of insight that her secret might literally explode one day in her beloved daughter’s face?

      One might simply describe these family members, particularly Peggy, as being selfish. But that explains little. They were also unable, apparently, to engage in any self-reflection. Even Lacey, it is clear, was never shown in her youth how to question the world about her. Was there ever an encounter in her childhood in which anyone around asked “what is truth?” It’s as if this family and everyone they knew, including their fellow worshipers in the local synagogue as well as Peggy’s secret lover and Lacey’s biological father lived in a kind of bubble in which the very ability to co-exist depended upon their utter silence. If the numerous photographs and films in which they documented themselves suggest a sense of communal self-consciousness, we have to admit that they selves where living almost as automatons—like their cameras, mechanical devices representing what pretend to be real lives.

      Lacey Schwartz’s documentation of her own coming to terms with the truth and her search for her own identity are not nearly as interesting as are the silences behind the encounters between daughter, mother, father, and friends. Certainly, both parents’ refusal, even after the truth had become apparent, to directly face their daughter’s questions, prove that these are people who never learned to look within. And when Lacey finally breaks through the sturdy exterior of her mother’s simplistic explanations—that she grew up in an age when things like religion, marriage, and family were simply assigned to you, requiring that you simply accept them—we discover a rather hedonistic younger self, a would-be independent person who, had she continued in that direction, might possibly have broken down some of the barriers to interiority. Yet there is also almost a sense of arrogance in her denials of wrong-doing. Somehow she still remains unable to see the complexity of her self-denials, the horrors behind her cocooned existence.
     The wronged father, Robert, in many ways, is even worse. Yes, he has been lied to, continues to be lied to even as his daughter attempts to frame her questions. But he is still more interested in his own pain, wallowing in his own sense of wounded manhood instead of attempting to help his daughter to explore the many ways in which he may not only have participated in the “white lie” of their lives, but encouraged it. Attempting to begin a conversation with him, Lucy queries whether he has noticed that she has identified with being Black. His sharp retort that, of course, he has noticed her interest in Black writing, music, friends, etc.—appears to suggest that  exploring one’s identity is simply a matter of surrounding oneself in the artifacts of what he imagines represent that racial identity. It appears that he (and admittedly, at moments, even our narrator) has never imagined that there might be millions of Blacks who do not define themselves by listening to so-called Black music, by reading texts written by Black writers, or necessarily surrounding themselves only with their Black peers. We can understand that, in attempting to discover her own identity, that Lacey may be exploring cultural and social behavior previously unavailable to her in her white-Jewish upbringing. But her father cannot seem to even wonder if identity might be something one might want or need to reimagine.
     The “little white lie” that this troubling film refers to is not simply the fact that the family and friends chose to lie to Lucy and themselves, but that the entire society in which they were embedded encouraged and allowed that and other lies—and, even worse, continues to embrace the lie—that being Jewish and being Black (unless one might be of Ethiopian heritage), being biracial, or being of several racial heritages simultaneously is something best not spoken of, not even attested to by one’s own vision. The lie arises from ignorance more than from evil intent. If one seldom encounters anyone out of one’s cultural milieu, how can one even imagine how other people live? The culture in which Lacey grew up was not racist because it would not allow Blacks to enter their community, but in the fact that it might not even recognize a Black man or woman among their midst. The community in which the Schwartz’s lived (ironically, as Lucy points out, the German word for black), was not just color-blind but unable to visually and mentally make sense out anything around them, including their own lives. 
     Late in the movie, Lucy asks her mother a devastatingly important question, “Might Peggy, had not met Robert and not been encouraged by her family to marry him, have married Rodney Parker, the Black man who was Lacey’s father?” The mother, apparently, cannot recognize that possibility, suggesting that her Jewish husband was clever and funny and, besides, he had money. Her idea of identity, evidentially, has a great deal to do with deep pockets.
     The disturbing short film ends, fortunately, with an implicit admission that identity is never one thing, but is a series of shifting possibilities that often embrace contradiction and even conflict. Marrying a Black man, we see Lacey dressed in white, celebrating in what clearly is a Jewish wedding, the families from both sides coming together to openly share an event that, almost for the first time, isn’t pretending to be something else.

Los Angeles, January 5, 2014

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