Filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas Talks MTV's 'White People' Documentary: 'Whiteness Should Not Be the Norm'

by Dino-Ray Ramos 6:00 PM PDT, July 22, 2015
Photo: MTV

In 2013, filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas directed a documentary titled Documented, in which he came out of the closet in two ways: As a gay man and as undocumented. The film gained critical acclaim and started a whole new conversation about immigration in America. Spinning off that success, Vargas is now tackling the adjacent topic of race with his new MTV documentary, White People.

As the title suggests, the documentary is about exploring whiteness, but it's not the film that you think it is. It doesn't bash the white race - instead, it includes them in a conversation that they are often left out of. The film adds to the ongoing dialogue about race, immigration and diversity in America that is in apparent in all of his work.

As part of MTV's Look Different campaign and Vargas' nonprofit organization Define America, White People is directed, produced and hosted by Vargas. In it, he travels across the country and follows the stories of five young white people from different backgrounds. The results are eye-opening, fascinating and, at times, uncomfortable -- something the documentary begs you to be. ETonline talked to Vargas about this ambitious, one-of-a-kind documentary, how it came about and what he is doing to diversify Hollywood.

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ETonline: How long has White People been in the making?

Jose Antonio Vargas: I wrote a front page story for the San Francisco Chronicle titled "In a World of Racial Diversity, What is White?" I remember how uncomfortable many of the white editors were about the piece. My assignment editor, a Filipina-American named Pati Poblete, worked with me on the piece. Since writing this story, which was published in December 2003, I've wanted to do a film about this very topic. Interestingly enough, Stephen Friedman over at MTV had been trying to make a documentary about white people for the past decade. After he saw Documented, he thought that I would be the right person to partner with. It just made sense for us to do this together.

Photo: MTV

The portrayal of the young people in the documentary wasn't mean-spirited but educational.

A woman from the Daily Beast called me after she saw it and said, "I didn't expect that, and I didn't expect so much empathy." I think people maybe were expecting that I was going to make an essay film on the white privilege in America. That just wasn't my interest. Whenever I would talk about immigration, no matter where I was, the conversation would veer towards race and the demographic changes that are facing the country. This was the approach I wanted to take, and, thankfully, this is the approach that MTV wanted to take.

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How do you feel about the portrayal of minorities and undocumented immigrants in Hollywood?

I think it's encouraging that shows like [The CW's] Jane the Virgin are touching on immigration in real, relevant ways, but I think Hollywood has a long way to go when it comes to reflecting this new, emerging American identity. There was a joke about the title of White People on Twitter: People of color were saying, "What do you mean the film is called White People? That's, like, Hollywood."

What are your feelings on how Hollywood is handling the casting of people of color in films, or lack thereof?

At the time, it was controversial when they cast Michael B. Jordan [in Fantastic Four]. I mean, how many people of color get to play action heroes? There's that.

Again, one of the things White People touches on is that whiteness should not be the norm -- it shouldn't be the standard. I'm not saying that to be disrespectful or rude. I'm saying that America was never white. The world was never white. The fact that Hollywood doesn't reflect what America looks like doesn't just hurt Hollywood -- it hurts all of us.

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Photo: MTV

Do you think shows like ABC's Fresh Off the Boat are indicative of a slow movement towards the inclusion of more minorities in Hollywood?

Yes, that is so revolutionary for us. But for me, representation is not just for representation's sake -- representation is paramount because the more we see each other, the more we understand each other. It means a lot to me that MTV is working with a gay, undocumented Filipino filmmaker. There aren't a lot of filmmakers of color that make it in directing television shows and directing films, and that's why people like Ava DuVernay are so important. Documented was nominated for an NAACP award, and I met her at the awards ceremony. That woman is blazing trails for not only black women but for all filmmakers of color. She's become such an example of what artistic integrity is and what your role as a filmmaker of color is. The fact that she said no to Marvel's Black Panther because it wouldn't be an Ava DuVernay film was brilliant.

Do you have another film in the works?

This is the second film that I directed but my first TV special, and I hope to do more. Define America has established a presence in L.A. to better engage Hollywood and how producers, directors, screenwriters and actors represent immigrants, both documented and undocumented. We want to help integrate the immigrant story in the same way the LGBT movement did. The battle for LGBT rights started in culture. When the culture shifts, the politics shift.