Saturday, October 10, 2020

Movie with Abe: Driving While Black

Driving While Black
Directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns
Released October 13 (PBS)

I remember when, during college, I first heard the term “driving while black,” used jokingly by a white friend from North Carolina in reference to the experience of her Black friend from home. Because of the color of my skin, I cannot possibly ever understand the notion of being at risk of profiling by police and being pulled over simply due to my appearance. A news clip from decades ago featured in this film finds a reporter explaining that viewers have heard of “driving under the influence” but not this other cause for a stop, one that unfortunately happens all the time and is now, fortunately, been talked about and exposed more openly.

This documentary traces the history of Black people in America and the way in which they were consistently discriminated against in one form or another since their arrival as prisoners and forced laborers on slave ships. The history of the end of slavery and the transition into segregation is covered, as well as the emergence of a police force based on an existing system of slavecatchers. The mobility of Black people is central to the film’s timeline, from sundown towns to the Green Book to migrations north that consistently demonstrate an inequality that today manifests itself most violently and visibly in discrimination and police brutality.

This film’s title refers to the broader notion of what it has been like to drive while Black rather than the still-existent phenomenon of Black drivers being pulled over without legitimate cause and facing potentially dire consequences for minor infractions, which is conveyed mostly through graphic footage of traffic stops within only the film’s final twenty minutes. Instead, its roots in a system of white supremacy become clear as the disparity between the experiences of white and Black people moving throughout the United States at any point in history is explored.

This documentary offers incredible insight and little positivity since it shows just how short a distance this country has come from its inception to its current state, where reforms and efforts at equality have simply resulted in a new incarnation of the same despicable behavior. Assembled together in this manner, it seems hard to imagine anyone watching and not gaining a greater understanding of how this issue has been pervasive and how difficult it would be to fully dismantle. It may be unpleasant, but this film should be essential viewing for anyone learning about the history of a country that has yet to acknowledge quite how much work there is left to do.


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