Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America

TV review by
Marty Brown, Common Sense Media
Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America TV Poster Image
Powerful doc uses violent images to illustrate history.

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Driving While Black is about how modern police brutality and the murder of Black Americans by police is connected to systematic racism that dates back to slavery. The documentary also focuses on the ways African Americans have coped with and sometimes overcome oppression, both through protesting oppression and fighting for systematic change. It highlights how Black culture and community have found ways to flourish, even within the restrictions of a racist system.

Positive Role Models

Driving While Black spotlights many key African American businessmen and activists, and the interview subjects are accomplished scholars and community members who are insightful and compassionate in their discussion of systematic racism.

Violence

Violence appears in photos and archival footage. The documentary draws parallels between the violence and torture methods used on American slaves, hate crimes perpetrated on African Americans, and the systematic harm and murder of Black people at the hands of the police. Graphic examples of each of these are shown, including recent footage of police attacking and murdering citizens.

Sex
Language

In this discussion of history and race, the "N" word is used, as well as other racial epithets. The word "nigga" is also used.

Consumerism

Vacation spots, tourist attractions, restaurants, and businesses are discussed in historical context.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking and smoking is shown in archival photos and video.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America is a PBS documentary that illustrates the evolution of systemic racism in the United States by looking at the relationship between African Americans and travel over the past 200 years. The documentary is a potent historical document, especially for those who have recently become more aware of systematic racism due to the recent wave of protests against police brutality. It outlines the connection between the violence perpetrated toward slaves, hate crimes toward African Americans during segregation, and the oppression and murder of Black people by police, using graphic archival photos and video to demonstate the extent of the abuse. The documentary serves as an exceptional introduction to how American history looks from a Black perspective.

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What's the story?

DRIVING WHILE BLACK explores African Americans' complicated relationship with the automobile and how it came to be. The documentary investigates the complex connection between the freedom that owning and driving cars offers African Americans, and the ways that cars and travel have been used to oppress African Americans and destroy Black communities throughout history. 

Is it any good?

It's important to understand that racism in America isn't a series of isolated events, but a continuum of oppression that is often reinforced by the government. Driving While Black is an incredible introduction to this complex idea that's missing from most versions of American history. Using travel as a window into how systematic racism works is extremely effective because it juxtaposes the promise of freedom with the reality of oppression. It streamlines a sprawling amount of material into an easy to follow timeline that leads right up to the police violence and misconduct that America is finally paying attention to in 2020. Rather than serving as a brutal slog through America's history of inequity, Driving While Black also highlights the Black culture, community, and entrepreneurship that flourished during segregation in spite of Jim Crow. It is not only a story of oppression, but also of resiliance. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about "driving while Black." Is this a phrase you're familiar with? What does it mean to you? How does the documentary use the idea of driving while Black to spark a discussion about important topics?

  • How does Driving While Black's outline of American history line up with what you already know? Did any of it suprise you? How does the history of the car intertwine with America's history? With African American history?

  • What are some aspects of Black culture that Driving While Black talks about? What did you learn about Black communities?

  • What does Driving While Black have to say about contemporary America? How does knowing history illuminate the present?

TV details

  • Premiere date: October 13, 2020
  • Network: PBS
  • Genre: Educational
  • TV rating: NR
  • Last updated: August 16, 2021

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