Whites Only: Ade’s Extremist Adventure review – a woeful failure to challenge racism | Documentary

Not every attempt at documenting real events ends up fulfilling its intended purpose. Capturing the Friedmans started as a sweet tale about clowns and ended up lamenting harrowing crimes. Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster was planned to be a couple of infomercials, not a nuanced portrait of the poisonous effects of fame. Tom Cruise went on Oprah to chat on the sofa and discuss his love for Katie Holmes in a totally normal way.

In the case of Whites Only: Ade’s Extremist Adventure, Ade Adepitan’s attempt to see if “racial separatism can ever be justified” becomes a cautionary tale for black people who think they can one-of-the-good-ones themselves out of white supremacy.

The programme follows the charming presenter and Paralympian on his trip to Orania, a “whites-only” town in South Africa, to learn about why they founded this community (racism), what their values are (racism) and why it celebrates the architects of apartheid (racism). He meets estate agents, students and town leaders to enquire politely about their “whites-only” space with the levity of someone discussing the weather.

An antisocratic approach – allowing subjects to talk with minimal interruption – can make for compelling interviews; Louis Theroux has almost turned it into an art form. But in the case of Whites Only, Adepitan’s passivity journeys from ludicrous to offensive. He worries that, as a black man visiting an all-white town in South Africa, he might be the problem – that people might think he has “come in all guns blazing with his prejudices and his opinions, but that’s not really my style. I’m a chilled-out guy.” On entering – and this bears repeating – an all-white town in South Africa, he prioritises their comfort; he wants “to give these people a chance – and I don’t want to get kicked out”.

It is essential, of course, for any interview to have an element of good faith. Still, Adepitan’s hopeless optimism underserves him as he tries desperately to be “one of the good ones” while his subjects explain that apartheid wasn’t segregated enough, or that they don’t know enough about Nelson Mandela to form an opinion on him. This reaches unintentional hilarity at the halfway mark, when he watches a school play about dark-skinned, low-intelligence “homosexual monsters”. “I’m not an English graduate, but even I get the symbolism of this,” says Adepitan. The symbolism?! This isnt subtext; it is plain ol’ text.

Adepitan’s determined and sunny naivety becomes far more intriguing than the faux-intellectual nonsense his interview subjects spout. Their achingly dumb theories include segregation being a rejection of “social engineering” and Orania being “a cultural thing more than a political thing”. These deeply unserious soundbites barely merit screen time or brain cells, yet Adepitan becomes smaller and sweeter in an attempt to appease them. It is fascinating to behold.

He suggests their “racist past was just overshadowed by apartheid”, asks his subjects gently if there were “negatives” to the Afrikaans history in the region and, in a moment of astounding respectability politics, all but grasps a string of pearls as he defends British democracy and says: “I support BLM [Black Lives Matter], but I don’t go out rioting!” Not only is this a particularly tone-deaf thing to say in South Africa, but it also suggests that he also needs to read up on Mandela.

This programme feels like watching a toddler wander into a lion’s den to advocate for veganism. At one point, they stop by a church from which other journalists allege they were thrown out because they were black. “Luckily, we’re not going in,” he says. “It’s agreed we can interview the pastor after the service.” Despite this, he seems shocked to be given a hostile reception.

Even the Oranians seem puzzled by Adepitan’s openness. At one point, he says to his fixer, Kerneels: “I don’t feel comfortable here. And I want to.” Kerneels looks at him, dumbfounded, and says: “I’d be very surprised if you did feel comfortable here.”

James Baldwin once said of living amid the profound racism of the US in the 60s: “To be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.” Adepitan shows that choosing good vibes over consciousness is an unenviable alternative. Being a black “chilled-out guy” is a feeble response to white supremacy; the Oranians are unmoved by his politeness.

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Adepitan concludes there were very fine people on both sides, but places like this will inevitably end with “me and you meeting on the battlefield”, seemingly unaware that the failure of his approach makes the case for militant action on racism. Unfortunately, to land accidentally on a salient point is not commendable. To be black in “whites-only” spaces is to be unwelcome – and that is not something with which anyone, or any programme, should strive to feel comfortable.

Whites Only: Ade’s Extremist Adventure was on Channel 4 and is available online

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