'Driving While Black': Film Review

Less politically pointed than expected, and interesting mostly as a possible launching pad for its star.

Dominique Purdy plays an oft-hassled pizza delivery guy in Paul Sapiano's unexpectedly light comedy.

Moviegoers should think twice if they expect searing exposé or impassioned drama from a film called Driving While Black. What they will get in Paul Sapiano's low-budget indie, co-scripted by star Dominique Purdy, is shambling slice-of-life comedy in which the scent of weed competes with any intimation of real-world outrage. Though some will take offense, those ready for a quick time out from fight-the-power indignation may well roll with the picture, which relies on the charms of Purdy, an off-screen musician known as Koreatown Oddity.

Purdy's Dimitri is a Los Angeles artist who makes rent by delivering pizzas — a gig ensuring plenty of interactions with the LAPD. Early on, Dmitri takes viewers on a tour of his history with police harassment, explaining (for those of us who need it) why he and his friends might be disinclined to give cops the benefit of the doubt. But the pic follows this immediately with a present-day encounter, in which a traffic stop actually proves to be an offer of help: Not "I see you're having engine trouble...how about I search your car?," but "You need some help getting this heap to a mechanic?"

This represents the movie's unexpectedly tempered view of cops, who get plenty of scenes to themselves. Here, even the most bigoted pig (played by Peter Cilella) is more interested in working on his race-baiting comic material than in exerting physical control over civilians — and of his peers, generally the worst you can call them is jaded. When we sit in on the precinct's start-of-shift briefings, we see a diverse crew with little patience for the racist in their midst. The idea would seem to be not just to put viewers in the officers' shoes, but to prepare us for a climax (more about that later) in which there's every reason to suspect Dimitri of heinous crimes, and it's important for us to look at him, however briefly, through their eyes.

First, though, Purdy gets lots of time to prove his worth as a laid-back comic lead. Stuck without a car, Dimitri kills time by taking a Hollywood tour, where his quips overshadow the tour guide's stale material. When out-of-towners tip Dmitri instead of the guide, the tour organizer insists he should come in and interview for a job. Dimitri's multiple failed attempts to get there on time supply what little structure most of the film has, and on the whole they make for low-stakes fun.

Needing something big for the third act, Sapiano and Purdy move heaven and earth to contrive a situation in which Dimitri looks like a criminal who has been kidnapping and torturing young girls. We've heard the perp's M.O. in those precinct meetings, and we watch as, one by one, Dimitri innocently fills his car's trunk with a slew of items associated with the crimes.

But as it sets this in motion, the movie needs to shift gears in a way it never does. The pacing should tighten and tension rise as a noose starts to slip over our hero's neck without his knowledge. But Sapiano continues to amble along, indulging in episodic hijinks up until the point at which Dimitri may well face some actual police brutality.

No spoilers, but the film tries to have things both ways in its final scenes, both offering an implausible escape from immediate violence and closing with a needlessly ambiguous confrontation. In a different sort of movie, this final question mark would be justified, lamenting that every time a black man sees a police cruiser's lights, there's legitimate cause for alarm. Driving While Black, though, is too interested in charming us to drive home this upsetting truth.

Production company: Anthem Films
Distributor: Artist Rights Distribution
Cast: Dominique Purdy, Sheila Tejada, Peter Cilella, Joanie Bovil, Gloria Garayua, John Mead
Director: Paul Sapiano
Screenwriters: Dominique Purdy, Paul Sapiano
Producer: Djay Brawner
Executive producer: Patrick DiCesare
Director of photography: Bryant Jansen
Production designer: Robert Wise
Costume designer: Maggie Barry
Editor: Enrique Aguirre
Casting director: Lynne Quirion

92 minutes