Lacey Schwartz's "Little White Lie" is now streaming on Netflix, after an international film festival run...
When I was growing up, a lot of kids would ask each other: “What are you mixed with?,” especially when they saw someone who couldn’t be easily placed into the categories of white, black, Latino, Asian, etc. The question, particularly among my black peers, would become as common as asking someone their name. My peers would spout off racial and cultural groups- Indian, Creole, black. Yet, in a society so defined by racial identification, what happens when a child who is clearly “mixed” to others, is taught to identify as white?
This question is thoroughly explored in Lacey Schwartz's feature documentary "Little White Lie," which follows her journey to uncover her family’s silence and secrets surrounding her half-black parentage. Raised in a proud white, Jewish home in the almost equally white Woodstock New York, Schwartz's early questions about her “different” look were answered with explanations of her father’s distant Sicilian ancestor whose dark features she supposedly inherited. But her family’s lies start to become more apparent when she enters high school and is met with confused looks of black girls who ask her what she’s mixed with, to which she responds, “Nothing. I’m white.”
In a candid interview with her then high school boyfriend who was also biracial, he reveals his own confusion around the silence in her family, as her racial makeup was clear to him as a black biracial person, as it was to others. In fact, the documentary becomes even more fascinating when Schwartz sits down with her white and Jewish family and friends, and asks them how they saw her growing up. Their responses encompass a range of denial, silence, and acknowledgement that there was a “giant elephant in the room” when it came to her actual race and her family’s acceptance of it. When she’s accepted to college as a “black” student based on a photo she submitted when applying, she’s also accepted into the black community there, further igniting her need to get answers from her family.
“Little White Lie” operates both on the level of personal portrait, utilizing endless film footage of Schwartz and her family in their everyday life, and at Bat Mitzahs, and also as an examination of whiteness and its supposed invisibility- the ways it isn’t questioned or disputed as a system of power and privilege, but Schwartz, with her tan skin and tight curls, isn’t afforded this privilege even if she believed she was white.
When she finally confronts her mother, she uncovers the truth of her identity- that her biological father was a black man from Brooklyn whom her mother had an affair with- and while it’s shocking and painful for her, it also reveals a betrayal of her father that explains his divorce from her mother years earlier. Aside from its obvious examination of race, the film is a sobering look at how silence and secrecy can eat away at the core of a family and its ability to function and communicate. So, while Lacey knows the truth, she is unable to talk openly about it in her family, lest she risk losing her bond to her already vulnerable father. So begins another journey of trying to foster dialogue around a secret that shattered her family, but that enabled her existence. That is, in itself, a weighty and difficult task and Schwartz documents her therapy sessions, discussions with friends, and the tense conversations with her father that may lead to closure.
I saw this film in a packed theater of mostly black people. They responded heavily to Lacey’s struggle in the film, sometimes as if they were watching a really meaty soap opera. And this is not a flaw of the film as much as it’s a strength. The film packs all the elements of high drama- betrayal, lies and the uncovering of those lies, and secrets, but manages to also comment on the idea and belief of whiteness, and the "difference" that sometimes defines blackness and biracial identity. Sometimes stories like this tend to err more on the side of personal release than cinematic function, but Schwartz, after what seems like years of filming this project, finds a nice balance.
Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She is currently in post-production on a short film, "Dream," and is developing several feature scripts.