Film Review: Driving While Black

Big subject, trite treatment.
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Made in 2015 but only now being released, Paul Sapiano’s Driving While Black takes racial profiling as the basis for what largely amounts to a loosey-goosey, picaresque cruise through Los Angeles. The film centers around Dimitri (co-scenarist Dominique Purdy), a pizza deliveryman and wannabe artist who is on his way to a real job interview, to the relief of his mostly exasperated loved ones. It’s a gig as a celebrity home tour guide, offered to him because of his off-the-cuff wit. But getting there without being thrown into jail is the problem.

Using numerous, darkly humorous flashbacks, Sapiano depicts Purdy’s experiences with racist cops getting in his face from early childhood. It’s become an accepted fact of life for him as he maneuvers how to avoid arrest, invoking an almost sixth sense with febrile antennae that can intuit when the police are within his radius. The ugly and bitter monotony of this ordeal is what fuels the movie, but the tone is shaky, decidedly weakening its effect. Wringing humor from a bad situation is a classic, nay necessary, survival skill, But there’s not enough wit in this bumptious, scattershot work, which often devolves into something like a mobile standup routine for Purdy as he encounters an assortment of Lalaland eccentrics: celebrity impersonators on Hollywood Boulevard, the wacky homeys of his own hood and an entire fleet of a-hole boys in blue. 

While Purdy largely remains cucumber-cool (which translates into rotely mechanical, for although he physically sort of evokes Dave Chappelle, his comedic talent and improvisatory chops are decidedly inferior), the movie’s cops all seem to have taken their cues from Jackie Gleason’s uniformed blowhard redneck in Smokey and the Bandit. Nearly every encounter with them has an actor-y fake and even slapstick feel to it. Plus, the film has the nerve to go very dark at the end, suddenly asking us to really, really care. So what might have been a trenchant and mordantly funny take on a real and horrific crisis taking place in this country—especially in the three years between its filming and its release—is instead synthetic and much too L.A. in a plastic, pejorative way.

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