Despite the hiccups in the narrative, the tension is thick and the plot turns are dizzying. Ultimately, it's a jaw-dropping documentary study of collective denial.
THE DOCUMENTARY "Little White Lie" airing on "Independent Lens"
WHEN|WHERE Monday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz confronts what everyone in her life had been "overlooking": That the little girl from the nice white family in Woodstock was black. How did it happen? How could it happen?
The light-skinned Schwartz grew up in Woodstock, a fairly homogeneous white community, never thinking she wasn't just like her parents, Robert and Peggy, and an heir to a New York Jewish immigrant background -- despite the fact that in summer she certainly tanned up a lot darker than anyone else in the family. Robert Schwartz explained Lacey's coloring away by pointing to photographs of his dark-complected Sicilian grandfather, which in retrospect seems ludicrous. (The filmmaker's biological father, no surprise, was really an African-American, who had an extramarital affair with her mother.) Schwartz concludes that everyone was in denial. "If you looked too closely at it," the filmmaker says, "it didn't make sense. So we didn't look."
It's not until she applies to Georgetown University, attaches a picture of herself and is admitted as a black student, that she accepts the obvious. At which point there's something of a hole in the story: She transitions into black college life with nary a speed bump, and it's not until later that the confrontations with her parents get serious. Were they unaware that a major institution of learning had declared their daughter African-American?
MY SAY Schwartz, with her co-director, James Adolphus, turns what really should have been a non-mystery and non-secret into a kind of domestic thriller, at the center of which is the human capacity for self-delusion; the interviews with the now-separated parents amount to some of the more heartbreaking television one is likely to ever watch. But amid all the collected joy and pain of the movie, one wishes that the filmmaker had entertained the idea that the people she knew -- at least those outside the nuclear Schwartz unit -- weren't simply being obtuse all those years. They probably knew the little Schwartz girl was different. They simply didn't acknowledge it because to ask the wrong questions could ruin a family that seemed to love each other very much. And still do. As complicated as "Little White Lie" may be, people are even more problematic and convoluted, their judgment frequently clouded by good intentions. As good as it is, "Little White Lie" might have kept that in mind.