A Secret Falls From the Family Tree, and a Girl’s Identity Branches Out

The documentary “Little White Lie” would be provocative simply for what it says about race and identity. The director Lacey Schwartz grew up Jewish in Woodstock, N.Y., yet something seemed off. Her peers would ask if she was adopted. At Ms. Schwartz’s bat mitzvah, a member of her synagogue assumed she was an Ethiopian Jew. Her family attributed her darker skin to a Sicilian great-grandfather. Only gradually did Ms. Schwartz, now 37, begin to suspect what might seem obvious to an outsider: that her biological father was black.

“Little White Lie” is, in part, the story of Ms. Schwartz’s evolving view of her background. As a child, she thought of herself as white and even wished for a lighter complexion. College changed that: Although she didn’t declare a race on her application, she says Georgetown considered her a black student based on a photograph. She was welcomed by the Black Student Alliance and began to experience the influence that race has on everyday life.

That shift in perspective might be startling enough, but the movie goes one step further by charting the effect that Ms. Schwartz’s transformation has on her family members and the awkward sense in which her embrace of a biracial identity might be seen as a repudiation of them. The film is a searing portrait of collective denial — a diagnosis from which Ms. Schwartz doesn’t exempt herself.

Ms. Schwartz’s parents, Peggy and Robert Schwartz, who divorced, both say that to varying degrees they had convinced themselves of the Sicilian-ancestry story, even though Lacey Schwartz’s biological father, Rodney Parker, was an acquaintance of family and friends. Some are shown attending Mr. Parker’s funeral, where Ms. Schwartz was announced as one of his children. But even that incident doesn’t open the floodgates of conversation.

“Little White Lie” examines how the secret rippled through the years. Graced with old photographs and footage, Ms. Schwartz, who narrates, films key confrontations with her parents. Anyone expecting a warm reception from the pained-looking Robert, whom she still calls her father, is at the wrong movie.

Even so, the film shows some sympathy toward Peggy, who acknowledges that her relationship with Mr. Parker predated her marriage to Robert. Few moments in recent nonfiction cinema are as piercing as the one in which Ms. Schwartz asks her mother if she might have settled down with Mr. Parker had he not been black.


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