Mark Reviews Movies

Driving While Black


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Sapiano

Cast: Dominique Purdy, Sheila Tejada, Peter Cilella, John Mead, Gloria Garayua, Mayank Bhatter, Mustafa Shakir, Travis Dixon, Joni Bovill

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 2/1/18 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 1, 2018

The arguments of Driving While Black are not subtle, but they are multi-faceted. Here's a film that directly confronts the notion of police prejudice with a viewpoint that includes members of the police force. The film paints with a broad brush, but it does so in order to capture as many points of view as possible. By the end, we can see the faults of its central character, the flaws of individual members of a local police department, the rationale behind the thinking of both sides, and the ways in which the abuses of one or two people in power can have an impact on a system as a whole.

It's an ambitious look at race, police power, the responsibilities of a given individual, and systemic abuse. All of it is presented as a personal narrative, sometimes unflattering and oftentimes infuriating. The screenplay comes from director Paul Sapiano and star Dominique Purdy, who plays Dimitri, a pizza delivery guy who has spent the majority of his life having run-ins with the cops in Los Angeles.

Some of those encounters have been unfair, like when a couple of police officers accosted him and his friends while they were simply walking down the sidewalk. Some of them were fairer than they needed to be, such as when one black officer gave a younger Dimitri some tips for how to handle being confronted by the cops—even after the cop and his partner had plenty of reasons to arrest Dimitri and his friends. The cop speaks from experience. When he's out of his uniform, he points out, he has to play by the same rules he's passing on to Dimitri. It's not fair or just. It's simply a way of living.

This may sound fairly cynical and even more than tad unhelpful. In a way, it is, but the film isn't about giving optimistic answers.

Its primary goals are to see the problem, to examine it from a few angles, and to guide us toward some deeper understanding of the root causes of the issue. The film falters, undoubtedly, mostly because it becomes sidetracked by trying to be a comedy about Dimitri's day-to-day life. There are stretches here when the screenplay seems to forget its purpose, but when the film directly addresses that central relationship—between a young, black man and the various cops he encounters through his life—and the thought processes behind both sides of that relationship, it possesses a surprising amount of insight to go along with its critique.

Dimitri has something of an aimless life. He delivers pizzas (A montage offers an array of responses to his job, from his regulars to an older white couple who, having forgotten that they ordered pizza, are terrified at the sight of a black man at their door). He smokes marijuana on a regular basis. He lives with his mother (Joni Bovill) and has a girlfriend named Talula (Gloria Garayua), who thinks he should be doing more with his life. Dimitri's ambition is to become an artist.

The first signs that Sapiano and Purdy are trying to delve deeper than simple outrage come with a montage of Dimitri's history with the police. From his childhood until a few years ago, he has a timeline of momentous police encounters that have defined his outlook on and behavior in the presence of the cops. Afterwards, in the present day, Dimitri's car breaks down on the road, and a pair of police officers help him get his car to a nearby mechanic shop. After establishing a pattern, Sapiano and Purdy immediately shatter it.

The film does this often, and it points to an attitude of understanding amidst the obvious outrage. The rest of Dimitri's story follows him trying to get to a job interview for a Hollywood tour of celebrity homes (There's a lengthy, distracting sequence involving his Hollywood adventure). Every attempt is halted by police activity: He's pulled over on his way there, his car is booted and towed for outstanding parking tickets, and one of his friends is stopped by the police, only to have one of the officers lock his keys in the trunk.

It's akin to a comedy of errors, except there is no error on Dimitri's part in about half of these incidents. In a way, that's the joke, as depressing and distressing as it may be.

On the other side, though, is a series of scenes involving a handful of police officers in the local precinct. Many of those scenes involve a pair of cops named McVite (Elden Cuillard) and Kinnon (John Mead), who express racist thoughts in public and possess even more insidious intentions in private. The film shows that McVite, the more racist of the duo, has a reason for racially profiling while on duty (He was assaulted while a rookie), but it digs deeper, suggesting that his prejudicial attitude is founded on frustration with himself and is an expression of denial about his own culpability in the state of his life. McVite is an outlier among a police department that openly expresses and condemns his words and actions, promoting an officer of Asian heritage (played by Sheila Tejada) in his stead.

That doesn't mean the rest of the cops are innocent. Quite the contrary, the film leads to a climactic confrontation in which McVite's way of thinking infests the rest of the officers on scene. It's subtle, as is the ultimate lesson of Driving While Black, but it escalates quickly. There's a point at which the attitude and behavior of the relatively good cops are indistinguishable from McVite's. At that point, in Dimitri's eyes, is there really any difference between the good cops and the bad ones?

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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