There's an uncomfortable reality that permeates every moment of co-writer/director Paul Sapiano's Driving While Black, a film grounded in a deep reality inspired by the the real life experiences of the film's co-writer and star, Dominique Purdy. In the film, Purdy plays Dmitri, a twentysomething black man living in Los Angeles with a mother (Joni Bovill) and a girlfriend (Gloria Garayua) who want him to ditch his dead-end pizza job for a better opportunity.
And, oh yeah, Dmitri keeps getting pulled over by the LAPD pretty much on a daily basis.
While you may think you know exactly where Driving While Black is going, what you don't quite expect is just how brutally honest, and incredibly funny, the film gets along the way.
Driving While Black has proven to be wildly popular on the film festival circuit and picked up 32 film festival awards along the way. The film has been picked up by indie distributor Artist Rights Distribution, Inc. for a limited nationwide release on February 1st and it's the kind of film that has more than a decent shot at finding a wider audience.
It is interesting, and perhaps important, to note that Driving While Black, while largely based within Purdy's personal experiences was also made with technical advice provided by the sheriff's department (though the specific department is not named).
A good part of what makes Driving While Black such a compelling film is the charismatic presence of Purdy, whose physical similarity to comedian Dave Chappelle is noted in the film and whose manner of delivery is sort of Chapelle-lite. While some may lament that the lead character in the film is presented as a stoner, such a character further invites us to examine our pre-existing biases about who "deserves" to be harassed and the finer intricacies of racial profiling.
If there's a key flaw to be found in Driving While Black, it's likely the lack of actual character development. While Purdy's Dmitri is infinitely likable, he never really becomes a well known entity. In fact, the most known entities may very well be the cops themselves including one, in particular, who presents with obvious racial biases and another who's pretty much a polar opposite and, in fact, has her own experiences with racial profiling captured in the film. However, much of Driving While Black plays out as a series of darkly comical skits and scenes that become more and more pointed as the film plays out yet never really gel into a cohesive unit. The film's most heartfelt scenes involve Dmitri with his girlfriend, while one extended scene involving a tour bus is funny yet almost feels like an outtake.
While it may seem like I had a number of problems with Driving While Black, the truth is that the film is immensely entertaining and maybe even more thought-provoking. The laughs came frequently throughout the film, at times somewhat guiltily, and it's perhaps my belief that the film is damn near brilliant that causes me to point out its few modest flaws. Purdy himself is a joy to behold, the kind of guy who's so funny and so natural that if he ever shows up in Indy doing stand-up comedy I'll be one of the first in line. I appreciated that Sapiano never allowed any of the characters to turn into caricatures, an easy temptation when dealing with issues around police harassment and one that's avoided here.
Driving While Black is truly a comedy, yet it's a comedy with a purpose and that purpose shines through in every minute of the film. Thanks to a strong ensemble cast and the raw and honest dialogue created by Purdy and Sapiano, Driving While Black is the kind of film that'll make you laugh while you're watching it then talk about it once the experience is over. For more information on the film and to keep track of release dates and locations, visit the film's Facebok page linked to in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic