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Our country is fucked up. Seriously, it sometimes feels like we’re living in some alternate dystopian timeline—or at least we’re headed that way. Of all people, fucking Donald Trump may be our next president. Meanwhile, black people all across the country face racial profiling, discrimination, and violence from the men and women whose job is to serve and protect. Art, as they say, imitates life, so it’s only natural for filmmakers to vent their frustrations with everyday prejudices through their art. Enter Driving While Black, a meandering look at the daily discriminations—from police, mostly—that a young black pizza delivery guy faces in L.A.
The biggest problem with director Paul Sapiano‘s film is that it can never decide what it wants to be. It starts off as a kind of Spike Lee-esque homage, introducing us to star and co-writer Dominique Purdy‘s Dimitri—a struggling artist who makes ends meet delivering pizza throughout L.A. The first 30 minutes of the film almost feels like a West Coast remake of Do The Right Thing, as we follow Dimitri’s daily routine—heading out to work and meeting all the characters he encounters while delivering pizzas. But then he gets pulled over by a cop car. It’s far from the first time Dimitri has been pulled over and, as the film progress, it sure as hell isn’t the last.
In fact, the entire film is defined by Dimitri’s meeting with cops: A job interview is twice thwarted because he was pulled over by cops, and a lengthy flashback reveals that it’s something he’s had to deal with his entire life. It’s no secret that racial discrimination is a very real and serious issue—especially in L.A.—but Sapiano’s representation of nearly every white cop as an angry hothead convinced that every person of color is probably engaging in illegal activity boils down a complicated issue into a matter of heroes and villains. Especially when one white cop’s racial insecurities and biases about one of his colleagues—a Filipino woman, one of the only law enforcement characters written with any empathy—gets a promotion he desperately wanted. His reaction? Staking out at a traffic-heavy corner with his partner, waiting for a car of black people to drive by so he can pull them over.
Sapiano and Purdy have a lot to say about racial politics and institutional biases, but with Driving While Black they struggle to find a cohesive way to say it, often looking to replicate ways in which filmmakers like Lee and John Singleton have addressed such issues. And perhaps that’s where the filmmakers fail: Whereas Lee’s Do the Right Thing explores racial politics as a messy, complicated, and urgent issue, Driving While Black‘s racial politics are boiled down too simply.
Screens Friday at 7:15 p.m. at Navy Memorial Burke Theater, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $11. dciff-indie.org.