“As a black man, I have to deal with an extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life.”
The same year the aggressively crass (and surprisingly touching) Tangerine took America on a whirlwind tour through the seedy side of Los Angeles populated by trans sex workers & drug-addled pimps, Driving While Black offers a different perspective of the city rarely seen in cinema: that of the young, black stoner. With its tape warp hiphop/Stones Throw Records-leaning soundtrack (complete with a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf ringtone) & graffiti-flavor title cards, Driving While Black poses itself on the surface as a laid-back stoner comedy, but packs a much heftier political punch than what you’d typically expect from that genre. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny. Unlike the way Dear White People softens its political provocation by focusing on the emotional stress of its college student protagonists, Driving While Black never strays from its musings about police brutality & abuse of power, but still somehow mixes that message with goofball gags like the image of its protagonist getting so high that he glides down the street like Dracula. It’s an impressive & often powerful balance in comedic tone.
Here’s the plot of Driving While Black in an over-simplified nutshell: Dimitri, an aspiring artist/overgrown pizza deliver boy, is trying to make it to a job interview at the behest of his girlfriend & mother to better himself, but on his way he is constantly derailed by a historically race-obsessed police force, the LAPD. There’s a depressing sense of routine & ritual in his run-ins with the law, which prompts him to mutter things like “Here we go again with the bullshit” whenever he’s pulled over. With direct references to milestones like the Rodney King riots & our current era of online activism in reaction to police murders of unarmed black youth, the film has a keen sense of history & knowing, hands-on experience with police abuse of power in L.A.’s black community. Establishing that it’s a cradle-to-grave problem, cops are even shown harassing children, calling them “little assholes” & “cum socks” (and then humorously over-explaining the meaning of that latter insult), and accusing them of crimes they obviously didn’t commit. In some encounters, cops lecture the protagonist on how to not look suspicious (because dressing or acting a certain way is likely to get you pulled over). In others, they overstep their authority with statements like “You’re not under arrest, but I am going to handcuff you for your safety and for mine”. There are some surreal scenes, like depictions of Ku Klux Kops (who wear a sort of police uniform, hooded robe hybrid) with glowing eyes & demonic voices, as well as just-as-surreal encounters where cops are surprisingly helpful. There are also some more believable moments where they’re portrayed as real people, however nerdy or unnecessarily aggressive. What really stands out, though, is the fact that Dimitri has to deal with police on (at least) a daily basis, completely against his will, a point hammered home by the fact that the LAPD uses his pizza place as a social meeting ground.
Speaking of Dimitri, actor Dominique Purdy should be given a lot of credit for making sure that the movie never tips too far into a didactic, political downer. He’s just a generally affable, funny guy, something that the movie is smart to exploit. Watching him go about his day, interacting with L.A. weirdos, drug dealers, street performers, and Homes to the Stars tour groups, are some of the film’s most enjoyable moments, which invites the audience to share in his frustration when his day is sidelined by police-related complications. The film is also smart to directly reference Dave Chappelle multiple times, as the comparison to his likeness & stoner-minded sense of political humor is likely to come up time & time again anyway. Since Purdy collaborated with director Paul Sapiano as a writing partner on the film’s script, he has a personal connection with the material that more or less allows him to be his effortlessly funny/charming self. It’s tempting to infer that Driving While Black is a glimpse of his Purdy’s personal Los Angeles, an affable stoner’s guide through the relentless annoyance & potential danger of a racist institution that complicates & threatens his otherwise pleasant, laid-back lifestyle. And because it’s a problem with no clear answer, the film ends that tour on a chillingly ambiguous note, a brave choice in conclusion for a screwball stoner comedy, however political. It’s a rare treat that a movie can be this consistently funny & still leave you with such a provocative feeling once the credits roll. I’m excited to see the rest of the world’s reaction as Driving While Black‘s distribution starts to gain traction. There’s surely to be a good bit of great post-screening lobby talk in the coming year as more people get to experience this gem.