Critics say the film’s attempts are only “skin-deep”
White People, the much-anticipated documentary directed and hosted by Define American’s Jose Antonio Vargas, premieres tonight on MTV. Even if the film doesn’t deliver on its promise to deliver an “open conversation,” it will certainly instigate at least a week’s worth of reviews, think pieces, and hot takes, so it will behoove you to be familiar with the premise (there are already very strong opinions about it). The documentary follows Vargas, an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, as he travels around the country to interview five young white people about their racial identity and perceptions of race.
"Race is a sensitive subject no matter who you are and our goal with the documentary is to treat each person, story and community featured in the documentary with the utmost respect, all while exploring what race means to them,” said Vargas in the press release.
White people in America are not conditioned to see themselves as raced individuals in the same way that immigrants, black people, or Native Americans are. In this regard, White People has the potential to interrogate notions of race and force white people to examine how they are complicit to systemic racism. It’s not, for example, just about recognizing how police violence terrorizes black communities, but how our own personal behavior and language is produced and influenced by the machinations of a racist society.
If this is what White People does, then we can perhaps look forward to a more enlightening conversation. But there are hints in the press rollout for the film that MTV, or Define American, is reticent in their approach. In the release for the film, Rev. Ryan M. Eller, the executive of Define American, says they want a conversation that is “devoid of politics.” How is that possible, if race is inherently political? How can you divorce the conversation on race from police violence, or mass incarceration, or economic disprivilege? To do that would be to divorce race from racism, and the two things are inextricably intertwined. As many scholars have argued before, it is racism that produces race, racism that wills it into being.
It might be this unwillingness to be political that keeps White People from doing what it wants to do, which is to hold up a mirror to White America. The reviews indicate that this might be the case: critics at Complex and Variety argue that it fails to venture past a skin-deep examination of race in America. Over at Slate, reviewers Willa Paskin and Aisha Harris discourage white people from seeing the film at all. “I would hope we’d be way beyond just having these kinds of basic conversations and instead getting more confrontational and thoughtful,” says Harris.