'Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America': TV Review

Driving While Black
Courtesy of PBS/ Bill Eppridge
A strong synthesis of new themes and familiar topics.

Ric Burns and Gretchen Sorin's PBS documentary offers context on the Black travel guides featured in 'Lovecraft Country' and 'Green Book.'

From the context behind the Jim Crow-era guides to safe Black travel featured in Green Book and Lovecraft Country to a clear, timely argument that the history of American policing is inextricably linked to a history of restricting Black movement, PBS' new feature-length documentary Driving While Black offers several things of interest to a mainstream audience.

Still, I can't dispute that the title of Ric Burns and historian Dr. Gretchen Sorin's doc, Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America, makes it sound like a dissertation or at least a grad school essay. It's somehow even more rigorous-sounding than the full title of Sorin's new book on the topic, Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights. That's a tough way to lure that aforementioned wide audience.

The best I can do is note that Driving While Black is very good and does what a good dissertation or grad school essay should do: take some information you probably know and some details you probably didn't know, and reframe them within an argument that starts small but grows to encompass the entire history of the country.

That reframing and expansion starts with the very title, which refers to a colloquial expression, popularized in the '90s but pre-existing that time, referring to a police traffic stop enforced for no evident reason beyond the driver's race. Yes, the last chapter of the documentary looks — from Rodney King to Jacob Blake — at the way tragic police stops, sometimes tied to alleged vehicular infractions and sometimes not, have been pushed into wide consciousness in large part by increasingly available video technology. That technology has forced white people to acknowledge something people of color have been saying for decades. The doc also examines related rites of passage like "The Talk," in which Black parents communicate to their children strategies (only sometimes effective) to prevent police interactions from escalating.

But the "mobility" of the title goes beyond driving, from the abduction and forced transportation of Africans through the Middle Passage to the way much of early American law was based on restricting Black movement — a project that continued through slavery and Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow segregation that led to the birth of Green Book and other guides for Black motorists.

The "mobility" covered in the doc includes trains and public transportation, the filmmakers exploring the idea that any traversing of the country was implicitly linked with matters of race and privilege. The film examines the economy of the auto industry — how Henry Ford's relatively enlightened approach to Black employment (without ignoring his anti-Semitism) helped inspire and facilitate one wave of Black migration from the Deep South. We also learn about the infrastructure of the auto boom, how minority neighborhoods were disproportionately impacted by construction of the freeway system.

Some of the connections Burns and Sorin make are obvious and clear and some need more defending. But the documentary is driven almost exclusively by talking heads who are historians and authors, mostly Black, laying out their cases in terms both academic and personal. The intercutting of interviewees and archival footage, enhanced once we reach the '40s and '50s by home movies, is straightforward and clear. Talking head standouts include Sorin, Fath Ruffins, Allyson Hobbs, Alvin Hall, who deconstructs how the myth of the freedom of the American road was built around whiteness, and Herb Boyd, who summarizes the entire doc with the observation, "It entails so much more than the actual driving while black. It's living while black, sleeping while black, eating while black, moving while black. So when we start talking about the restrictions in black movement in this country, boy that's a long history. It goes all the way back to day one."

If you're a regular PBS viewer, you'll probably feel like Driving While Black is a synthesis of at least a half dozen feature and series docs that have aired in recent years, such as 2019's excellent Reconstruction: America After the Civil War and 2017's emotional The Talk — Race in America. There's a feeling that Driving While Black is, in hip-hop terms, sampling some familiar beats, but the originality is in the synthesis.

The 20+ minute segment on the Black driving guides is the part of the documentary that feels like it deserves its own two-hour treatment. Here, Driving While Black strikes a fascinating balance between never losing track of the racism of Jim Crow and celebrating some of the Black entrepreneurship it inspired. The documentary notes that 80 percent of the businesses featured in the Green Book no longer exist at all and only three percent are currently operational. There are figures featured here who remember some of those places, like the Drew Drop Inn and Marsalis Motel in New Orleans or the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard; their stories aren't going to be available forever. Several of the talking heads, like creole-cooking legend Leah Chase, have died since contributing to this doc.

More than anything, I came away from Driving While Black wanting an expansion of that side of the story — the story that Lovecraft Country honors as a plot point and that Green Book whitewashed beyond recognition. This documentary, though, is a good starting point.

Premieres Tuesday, October 13 on PBS at 9 p.m. ET/PT, check your local listings.