Anthony's Film Review
Driving While Black (2015)
This movie manages to be both funny and serious, not to mention eye-opening...
When I first heard of the indie film Driving While Black and how it's a comedy about an African-American man getting pulled over frequently by white police officers out of racial prejudice, I wondered if it was even possible to make light out of such a dark issue. Every time there is a news story about a black person in America being harmed or killed by people of Caucasian descent, whether or not the perpetrators are cops, many people feel a sense of grief and/or outrage. This has been happening notably often in the last decade, involving victims such as Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Jordan Davis, just to provide a sample. And who knows if this problem will continue? Certainly, it's better to talk about it than to stay silent. But still, how do you make a comedy out of a topic like this?
The answer is simple: make it a dark comedy, or a comedy-drama. It obviously doesn't make sense to have a comedy about racially biased cops and a black victim be so lighthearted and silly that the core social issue is treated with disrespect. Therefore, the comedy has to be thrown in bits at a time. Imagine taking a hardcore no-nonsense drama and then sprinkling in funny dialogue and actions in between dramatic scenes and sparingly within those scenes. The result is a drama that gets serious but has enough humor to pull you a small distance away when things get too heated. It's like having someone peer over the edge of a pit to stare at the darkness within before someone else quickly pulls that person away momentarily. That is what you can expect with the film Driving While Black, written by Dominique Purdy and Paul Sapiano, the latter of whom also directed the film.
Purdy is also the star here, playing a young black man in Los Angeles named Dimitri. He works as a pizza delivery man and spends time with his friends as well as his girlfriend. He also, unexpectedly, comes across a potential new job opportunity as a Hollywood tour bus guide. Basically, this is a regular guy whom plenty of people can relate to. However, while he is trying to live his life, he finds himself getting pulled over by the Los Angeles Police Department rather often, for no clear reason in relation to the law. The scenes of police stops in this movie are almost nothing but drama, with white cops appearing eager to immediately order a black driver to step out of his car, handcuff him, search his car, and verbally abusing the man at every opportunity. For comic relief, Dimitri may be having a funny mental image about how bad the police might act, or looking back on past police experiences with a bit of a laugh.
In fact, Dmitri reveals early on that he has had many bad unjustified run-ins with police since he was a child. His timeline of moments with police is so extensive that he provides only a sample of what he went through. Now he has a careful three-step process that he follows whenever he gets into the seat of his car: hands at the 2 and 10 o'clock positions of the steering wheel, adjust the mirrors, and check for cops. That's not to say he is super paranoid of cops. There are still times when he is in a car with some friends in South LA and engaging in some free-flowing conversation, and just the mere presence of multiple black guys in one vehicle, without an actual traffic violation, can lead to a police stop.
The plot of this movie is really simple, so much so that I don't really need to describe it in great detail. The experience of seeing this film mainly involves watching characters go about their lives, presented in such a natural way that it's hard to get bored by it. I will say, though, that several little events do converge and lead into the final police stop in this movie. This is where you cannot help but predict what will ultimately happen to Dimitri, and regardless of what you may assume, you cannot help but feel for the guy. Several police scenes will stir emotions about the issue of police brutality, but this one practically tops it off. According to press materials, Dominique Purdy wrote this film based on actual life experiences, and I will say that he has succeeded in making this film be a vivid wake-up call about police brutality.
Although Dimitri is the main character, it's worth seeing other characters come to life on screen. To present the opposite perspective, the film has a couple of scenes centering on members of the LAPD. There a few scenes showing a police briefing where officers receive news and updates of the latest crimes in the LA area. In another notable scene, one white cop verbally expresses his rationale for supporting racial profiling before pulling over a suspicious vehicle on that basis, which humorously leads to an unexpected revelation about the vehicle's occupants. It's also worth noting that a few cops, even some of the prejudiced ones, have a bit of integrity left to help them remember the lines to not cross. This is where Officer Borty-Lio, a Filipina cop played by Sheila Tejada, really stands out. At crucial moments, her honorable actions might make a huge difference.
The one other supporting character worth mentioning is Rafi, played by Mayank Bhatter. He is an Indian-American who works as a Hollywood tour bus guide, the one who helps Dimitri discover the opportunity to do the same line of work. The two meet because Dimitri decides to relax and ride on the tour bus. While Rafi makes some interesting, yet sometimes incorrect, comments about certain celebrities, Dimitri is quick to respond with his own brand of sarcastic wit. The dialogue ultimately makes the tour more interesting, as indicated by one tourist, a man from Germany, greatly enjoying it. I like Rafi not only for this scene, but also for the scenes he appears in later, reminding us all that black people are not the only minority group with issues to deal with.
This film was made in 2015 and has since been screened at many film festivals, earning top honors at events such as the Atlanta Underground Film Festival, the Trenton Film Festival, the San Francisco Black Film Festival, and the Global Cinema Film Festival. (Notice the many awards listed in the poster above.) I watched this movie in January 2018, a few weeks before it was scheduled to be shown in more theaters nationwide. As for how I would describe my experience of watching Driving While Black, I could sum it up in one word: engaged. I was engrossed in the film from start to finish. The great picture quality, well-written script, and realistic characters made it hard to turn away from the movie. It's definitely worth checking out. The gritty drama made me cringe while the light humor made me smile and even laugh a little at times. Even if the movie is more like 75% drama and 25% comedy than an even 50-50 split, I think it's fine. Heck, it's probably better that way, because again, we don't want to downplay the issue of police brutality against minorities.
Overall, on my 1-to-10 rating scale, I give this movie an 8, meaning it's pretty good and better than average. Dominique Purdy has done an admirable job of channeling his experiences of driving while black into the art of filmmaking while black.
For more information about Driving While Black, visit the Internet Movie Database.