What is it like to be white in the United States today?
It may seem like a silly question given the current climate, in which most every racial group except Caucasians has come under some form of attack from institutions meant to serve and protect. And that’s not to discount the reprehensible actions of individuals like gun-toting Confederate Flag-waver Dylann Roof and Mexico-deriding billionaire (and unlikely future president) Donald Trump, each perpetuating hate in his own way. But journalist-filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas thinks there’s something to the query, and he attempts to parse it in the sadly flimsy MTV-produced doc White People.
Vargas is front and center in the film — which runs a scant 40 minutes in an hourlong slot — and he has a brash yet cordial screen presence. You get the sense he could easily dig to the heart of any story (he won a Pulitzer Prize for his co-coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings), though he spreads himself way too thin here. There are a number of stories touched on in White People that would make for strong documentaries by themselves, starting with Vargas’ own history as a Philippines-born, Spanish-named immigrant who has lived undocumented in the United States since the age of 12.
He brings up his intricate heritage at the start of the film while addressing several groups of young people who have gathered to share their race-related experiences. This is his way of showing how a simple glance at a person never gives you the whole picture — a provocative opening salvo that is then blunted (as is so much else) by the doc’s aesthetic. It’s MTV house style all the way: The cuts are rapid-fire, the music — always leading you to the easiest emotion — is wall-to-wall, and drama is constantly manufactured from situations that likely had more nuance or raw discord than the corporate overlords were comfortable showing to an ADD-addled audience.
It’s a shame considering the people and places Vargas visits, all of them potentially more interesting than they come off in this context. The most fascinating stopover is at a South Dakota Indian reservation where the school is entirely Native American but for a number of Caucasian teachers. The irony of the situation is not lost on the white interviewees, who do their best to balance the harsh truths of American history with their own nagging sense of pride. (Is some overarching sense of liberal guilt keeping the white privilege at bay?)
Similar complexities are visible, if only cursorily, in many of the other stories: A gay Southern man chooses to go to a predominantly black college, then brings two of his new friends back to his primarily white hometown for a tense dinner. A Bensonhurst 20-something wonders, not without some I’m-not-racist hesitation, whether an influx of Chinese immigrants will irrevocably change his historically Italian neighborhood. And an effusive white collegian tries to get his conservative parents to attend a seminar he’s holding on racial entitlement, all in an effort to open their minds.
There’s so much prospect for challenge and stimulation here, yet Vargas never digs deep, jumping away from these varying tales right when they’re getting interesting (and just in time for commercial break). White People wants to be an agent of change, but it would first need to have more than the ephemeral quality of a Twitter hashtag.