Lacey Schwartz celebrates her bat mitzvah with her parents, Peggy and Robert. (photo from littlewhiteliethefilm.com)
From Hollywood films like Next Stop Greenwich Village and Reversal of Fortune to documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk, hyper-verbal Jews are practically a movie cliché. Name the last film that featured a Jew at a loss for words. It’s a stumper, because the silver screen stereotype of Jews is emotionally candid, unabashedly frank and unfailingly articulate. The rare exception to that rule, Lacey Schwartz’s Little White Lie deserves a place in the record books for that reason alone.
The first-person documentary follows the 30-something filmmaker’s effort to learn the identity of her biological father and, more importantly, force her parents to acknowledge and confront a painful secret. At the critical juncture, however, they become unexpectedly tongue-tied.
A fascinating modern mystery that paradoxically chooses not to explore the most interesting aspects of identity and race, Little White Lie airs nationally on March 23 as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series.
Schwartz grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., with doting parents. Her mother, Peggy, married at 21, sticking to a path her parents had instilled.
“We didn’t think outside of the box,” Peggy recalls. “And sometimes it was easier that way.”
Going with the flow seems to have been Peggy and husband Robert’s credo. After Lacey was born in 1977, and relatives or friends would observe that she was darker-skinned than her parents, Robert would point to a photograph of his swarthy, Sicilian grandfather by way of explanation.
Schwartz offers numerous childhood pictures of herself, and it’s obvious to the viewer that one of her parents could be black. Was she adopted? That would make sense, and certainly wouldn’t be a shanda, but no, there’s a photo of a very pregnant Peggy. Did Peggy have an affair? If so, neither she nor Robert ever said a word about it while they raised Lacey like any other white and Jewish girl.
“I wasn’t passing,” Schwartz tells us, referring to the practice of becoming regarded as a member of another racial or ethnic group. “I actually grew up believing I was white.”
One of the odder aspects of this bizarre saga is that Peggy and Robert seemingly never anticipated that one day Lacey would have questions and demand answers. It wasn’t until Lacey started high school – in a neighboring town with African American students – that she began to experience serious cognitive dissonance. The black kids assumed she was black, even though she thought she was white.
Schwartz gives the impression that in the ensuing years, through college and into adulthood, she had to work out her identity issues on her own with little to no help from her parents.
The perfectly titled Little White Lie eventually clears up the paternity mystery but, along the way, the emphasis shifts to Schwartz’s ongoing confusion, frustration and insecurity. In its weaker moments, the film becomes a therapeutic record of, and a vehicle for, her rocky process of acceptance.
Peggy and Robert’s inability to take responsibility for the messy secret at the family core deprives Lacey of the catharsis she seeks, and Little White Lie of a poignant climax.
More regrettable, though, is Schwartz’s disinterest in pursuing a deeper discussion of identity, and the comparative influences of genetics and upbringing. The film operates on a relentlessly personal level that perhaps precludes a broader perspective, but it is, therefore, baffling that Schwarz never talks about which Jewish and African American practices and traits she maintains and cherishes.
Schwartz’s wedding partially addresses this oversight. The filmmaker joins in the hora circle and is lifted with her husband on chairs; a bit later she dances to an African American rhythm. The scene doesn’t have the feel-good power it aspires to, but that’s a minor quibble.
The greater disappointment is that Little White Lie squanders a unique opportunity to bring Jewish culture and values to a wide audience, and African American culture and values to a Jewish audience.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.