When it comes to surfing and aquatic culture, where does your first thought go? Whom do you see? If you’re like this reviewer, you may think of Gidget (1959), Blue Hawaii (1961), Bikini Beach (1964), Point Break (1991), Blue Crush (2002), or Soul Surfer (2011). These are overwhelmingly Caucaustic films, supported by more than a century of cultural erasure by Western colonizers. In Chapter 1 of David Mesfin’s multiple-part documentary Wade in the Water: A Journey into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture, Dr. Kevin Dawson, Ph.D., is quoted as saying that surfing is a 1,000-year-old tradition, developed independently from Senegal to Angola. Following this, a quote from Michael Hemmerson is provided which states that in 1640, it was noted that African parents would attach wooded board to their children and throw them into the water. Quote after quote, one piece of history after another, Mesfin weaves together a tapestry of culture and community that was strong before colonizing interference sought to unravel it and that has been slowly reclaimed and repaired in the United States for more than 100 years. In a brisk 62-minute runtime, Mesfin invites audiences to explore a part of global history that’s so greatly overlooked, it’s as if it never existed, and to discover something undeniably joyous.
Mesfin neither minces words nor relies too heavily on trauma in investigating a part of the Black community which is largely ignored. In the beginning, using a variety of experts and historical images, Mesfin lays out the cultural connection between water and the people of Africa. Stories are shared of strength, of spirituality, of ecosystems of finance and sustenance derived from the ocean and their relationship to it. From there, Mesfin identifies how the colonizers who started enslaving them used their talents with the ocean to proliferate their own financial gains either by trolling the oceans for treasures thought lost at sea or by manipulating circumstances so that none of the enslaved could get close to the water. Rather than tell a strict chronological story, Mesfin uses the groundwork to engage other experts whose knowledge and expertise come from having lived in, touched by, or being part of the surfing community within the last 100 years and hearing their stories of oppression, segregation, and opposition to the restriction of bodily autonomy. What could be an absolute weight of pain and suffering is presented as an overcoming, a retaking of what was once theirs, making the audience feel empowered by the end.
One of the fascinating things about Wade in the Water is the exploration of appropriation. Ordinarily, the connotation of the word would imply that something which belonged to one community would be taken over by another. While that is correct and it clearly did happen given how most examples of Beach culture are strikingly White, in this case, what’re important to consider are the examples provided of how the Black community reached the coast of California, tried to make a place for themselves in a region considered by right-leaning ideologues to be so progressive they must be living in perpetual sin, and found themselves faced with the same political racism that is in effect now. Multiple examples are provided of local governments shutting down Black-owned businesses through the use of imminent domain (and still not using the property now) just to prevent Black Americans from building something for themselves at the beach. The tactics used against business owners in Santa Monica, Malibu, and other parts near Los Angeles are still in use in other parts of the United States, like the case in El Paso County, Colorado, in which a Black rancher got arrested despite being harassed repeatedly by his neighbors. Stories of harassment, of othering, of acts of violence, are common among each chapter of Wade in the Water yet, despite the anguish caused by each incident, the scars are healing through reclamation.
Likely not the intent, but it’s worth noting that in a rising tide of argument against historical truth, Mesfin’s documentary offers an incredible rebuttal to those proclaiming that Black history isn’t a significant part of American history and that those stories don’t deserve being told. Why? Because the continued acts of colonization, of perceived superiority, of enslavement literal or figurative, are entrenched in the creation of the United States. To ignore even one aspect of that history is to produce an incomplete and entirely different version of the birth of our nation. Based on the history lesson within the film, swimming was something natural to the African community and it wasn’t until the rise of Christianity (and medicine) that even Western Civilization had little in the way of indignity when it came to aquatic practices. One need only consider the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” a song strongly associated with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and is viewed as a directive to get into the water so that hunting dogs can’t catch a person’s scent. The spiritual is directly tied to both slavery and Christianity (something forced upon the enslaved as a means of control disguised as “saving the uncivilized”) and yet it speaks to the freedom that the water offers the Black community: a means of escape via an environment that was once their natural habitat.
I think it speaks to Mesfin’s point that, upon hearing the first few notes of “Wade in the Water,” my brain searched my internal Rolodex for why it sounded familiar until it landed upon singer-songwriter Marc Broussard’s “Home,” which uses the famous chorus from “Wade in the Water” for a significant portion, the instrumentation being that of the Bayou Soul genre, a sound influenced by Creole culture (someone of mixed descent that includes Europe and Black via the Caribbean). The point is, that Broussard was raised with this style of music and he likely knows of the connection between the song and the culture, making his use in this way intentional (though not necessarily maliciously so). The inclusion of the spiritual adds incredible flavor and energy to the already enthusiastic juke joint-esque track, but isn’t that just appropriation without respect paid to the source?
Best as I can tell, Wade in the Water is Mesfin’s first film and it’s a heavy weight. It balances art and entertainment, community and culture, and personal anecdotes backed by evidence and historical proof, never overloading or underwhelming the audience. Through the interviews we learn of defeats and victories, unfathomable losses and encouraging gains, and learn a lesson not just of perseverance but of determination to obtain what was lost which should never have been stolen. Mesfin delicately threads each point together with sight, song, and humanity until the audience feels as though they, too, should jump into the ocean, communing with the powers that reside within.
Screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Wade in the Water: A Journey into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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