Between the time when “Driving While Black” toured film festivals in 2015 and its theatrical bow in 2018, the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minn., made national headlines (among other killings across the U.S. of unarmed African-American citizens by police). The specter of that incident makes it all the more surprising that Paul Sapiano’s episodic slice-of-life, inspired by the real experiences of his co-writer and star Dominique Purdy, is foremost a light comedy, albeit one rooted in righteous anger over the everyday practice of racial profiling. That Sapiano and Purdy juxtapose the misadventures of a black delivery man with the nuanced conflict within a Seal Beach police department is also unexpected, though it sets the film on a collision course it doesn’t survive. Few will likely pull over for this micro-indie, but Purdy’s effortless charisma in the lead role deserves a citation.
Described at one point as looking like “Dave Chappelle’s cousin,” Purdy shares some of Chappelle’s sly, easygoing irreverence, always ready to unleash a quip at any moment, particularly if it’s to defuse a sticky situation. As Dimitri, an aspiring artist who picks up weed and rent money delivering pizzas in a beat-up Ford, Purdy plays the type of guy who gets into trouble without looking for it (or deserving it), which makes him a fine case study for the effects of overpolicing. At its best, “Driving While Black” is like “Harold & Kumar” with a Black Lives Matter edge: All Dimitri wants to do is drive to Hollywood for a simple job interview as a celebrity tour guide, but the cops keep him pinned to the side of the road. That he’s able to maintain his sense of humor speaks to an instinct for self-preservation.
For Dimitri, run-ins with the law are an occupational hazard to zipping pizzas around town, but he has a system in place to minimize his exposure. Via voiceover, Dimitri talks about checking for cops as an automatic reflex, like fastening his seatbelt and adjusting the rearview mirror, and he claims to have a sixth sense for when they’re around. His rules get more particular, too: Change streets when you spot a patrol car and never look like you’re having a good time, lest you’re assumed to be under the influence. Despite his abundance of caution, Dimitri has amassed enough tickets to get squeezed by municipal fines, which is trouble of another kind.
“Driving While Black” takes pains to distinguish between good cops and bad cops and all points in between, occasionally spending time in a police unit where a racist cop (Peter Cilella) loses a promotion to a less experienced Asian-American candidate (Sheila Tejada), which he bitterly assumes is a diversity hire, despite his spotty track record. When an at-large child kidnapper vaguely matches Dmitri’s profile, the troubles within the department spill out into the street, and a not-so-routine traffic stop becomes a dread-soaked inevitability.
The merging of the two storylines is labored beyond belief, requiring Dmitri to accumulate a trunk full of items that just so happen to synch up with the M.O. of a sadistic kidnapper. While it’s unfair to expect “Driving While Black” to be entirely free of happenstance, the film fares best as a pot comedy littered with occasional buzzkills, with Purdy breezily improvising his way through the day. Dmitri faces danger near the end, but this is not the kind of life-and-death satire “Get Out” mined so well. Still, the sequence where Dimitri wisecracks over a celebrity tour is a funny showcase for the actor and tacit evidence that leaving guys like him alone is better for the community than hassling them on every block. Left to his own devices, he’s content to work his charms for an hourly wage and smoke up the extra tip money. The system has a way of making a harmless man dangerous.