THE DOCUMENTARY "Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America"
WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. Thursday on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on historian Gretchen Sorin's recent book of the same name, "Driving While Black" — the term Driving While Black came into vogue in the '80s, referring to the dangers faced by Black drivers throughout the history of the automobile — is about the history of how "the right to move freely and safely across the American landscape has always been unequally distributed by race," per program notes. This was directed by Ric Burns ("New York: A Documentary Film") and Sorin who provides commentary along with others, including fellow historians Allyson Hobbs, Fath Ruffins, Eric Avila and Craig Steven Wilder, as well as authors (Herb Boyd, Candacy Taylor) and community leaders (Walter Edwards, chairman of Harlem Business Alliance).
MY SAY In 1996, ABC's "Primetime Live" wanted to see if Driving While Black was a real thing, "so we decided to do a little experiment," said correspondent John Quiñones. Three young Black men were instructed to drive around a small Virginia city in a late model Mercedes equipped with a hidden camera.
Sure enough, they were stopped and frisked, and the car searched. Reason given: Failure to make a turn signal for a lane change. The next day, the ABC News crew staked out the same intersection, counting 260 cars, of which 223 also failed to signal, "including squad cars."
Yes, Quiñones decided: A real thing.
The "PTL" report was hardly shocking, certainly nothing new, while lots of TV news "I-teams" (including ones on Long Island) have done identical reports over the years, with identical results. But I bring this up because what was real 25 years ago is real today, and according to "Driving While Black," was just as real 100 years ago with the advent of the Model T.
Circumstances may have changed, so have the cars. The reality, however, is abiding.
Unlike those i-team reports, "Driving" wants to put you behind the wheel this time. It wants to invoke that old familiar feeling — that get-your-kicks-on-Route 66 one, or go-see-the-USA-in-a-Chevrolet — then it wants to turn that feeling inside out.
For a century, African Americans have had exactly the same feeling, Sorin says, except that sense of freedom has often been offset by fear. Fear of humiliation. Fear of harassment. Fear of death — and not for yourself, but your 17-year-old son. "Driving While Black" doesn't even get around to police and dashboard cams (which came into wide use in the '80s) until the last 10 minutes.
This fear, she argues, is buried deep inside, almost too deep for words, but "Driving While Black" has little trouble finding them. Speaking of his own 17-year-old ("a good kid"), commentator Christopher West looks square into the camera to ask: "How would you feel if…?" He then looks away, his eyes brimming with tears. There's no reproof in the question, no accusation. He wants to know.
The accomplishment of "Driving" is contextual. There's a long, dark history here, dating back to fugitive slave laws, then Plessy v. Ferguson which upheld Jim Crow laws, while "The Negro Motorist Green Book" became a practical — indeed necessary — guide to navigate them. Created in 1936 by Bronx mailman Victor Hugo Green, the Green Book spawned a whole industry of hotels, motels, gas stations, nightclubs, restaurants which was largely demolished by the time the Interstate Highway System was completed in 1955.
Also demolished by the IHS were entire neighborhoods, mostly Black, whose residents were then forced into the suburbs where they were illegally shunted into red-lined communities. Next: the War on Drugs, racial profiling and stoppages — countless ones, while those closing minutes do graphically show some of their outcomes.
Certainly no jeremiad, "Driving" is cool, methodical and comprehensive,, but does leave open that one question: How would you feel?
BOTTOM LINE Essential viewing.