When was the last time you thought about what the word automobile means? Breaking it down, auto comes from the Greek for self, and mobile is from the Latin, meaning to move. An automobile is a technology that enables autonomy over one’s mobility—instead of relinquishing control over that mobility to someone else operating a commuter train, ferry boat, or airplane. What viewers will learn watching Driving While Black is that the restriction and policing of the mobility of Black citizens in our country is more intertwined with American history than any Corvette, F-150, or muscle car that has graced this publication.
Driving While Black comes from professor and Cooperstown graduate director Dr. Gretchen Sorin, who published a book of the same name in early 2020 (an excerpt of which we were lucky enough to feature in MotorTrend this June). She worked with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ric Burns to develop her history of Black American mobility into a feature-length documentary.
The documentary medium supplies rich auditory and visual assets that complement and supplement Sorin’s telling of that history. Period photography, propaganda, political cartoons, and grainy video make the social realities of our past, and present ethical misgivings, impossible to ignore. Scratchily recorded testimonies from freed slaves make a uniquely human impact viewers won’t soon forget. Juxtaposed with contemporary video interviews with professors, authors, and journalists, plus disturbing modern police footage, Sorin and Burns tell a harrowing, heartbreaking story.
There are times when the pace can feel slow. This is a nuts and bolts documentary rather than a Ford vs. Ferrari–style biopic. You’ll see plenty of “Ken Burns effect”—the familiar slow panning shots across the imagery. This version of Driving While Black is what you’d expect from a PBS documentary—just like you experienced with its baseball and Civil War docs, but concentrated into one episode rather than a series.
Sorin’s first documentary is not really about cars, either. It features one shot of a sweet Plymouth Roadrunner and examines the impact of Henry Ford’s $5 work day on Detroit’s Black community. But this is a racial, American story told through the lens of automotive culture, not the other way around.
Even if the Driving While Black documentary isn’t the definitive medium through which to experience Dr. Sorin’s exemplary historical work (that would be her book), it tells a story every automotive enthusiast needs to hear. The debut of her feature film, especially as broadcast on public television, makes that story accessible to millions of enthusiasts around the country, and for that we should be grateful. Driving While Black premieres on October 13th on PBS.
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