The Winery Gazette – Martha’s Winery Information
Driving While Black: Racing, Space, and Mobility in America, the latest documentary from filmmaker and seasonal Chilmark resident Ric Burns, is now broadcast on PBS and streamed on the station’s website.
While the film’s title is taken from current events, the arrests, beatings, and shootings of unarmed black motorists in 21st century America form only part of its sweeping narrative, which strongly argues that black mobility has always encountered resistance here.
“The point of the film is that there are roots and you have to understand those roots,” Burns told the Gazette over the phone this week from New York City. “You can’t just take things, terrible moments for terrible moments, and just stagger away with excruciating pain because it doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
Mr. Burns co-directed the film with Gretchen Sorin, author of the book Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights, which also appears on screen. With longtime associates of Mr. Burns, Emir Lewis, who lives in Oak Bluffs, and composer Brian Keane, the directors have woven a compelling story of vintage imagery, films, lyrics, music, interviews with contemporary scholars, and the occasional animated illustration .
Drive while Black is currently airing on PBS> – Courtesy of Ric Burns
“History is not illegible,” said Mr. Burns. “It may be complex, but it’s not magic and it’s not abstract and it’s not invisible. If someone shows you how to see what Gretchen and her colleagues did, you can never see it again. “
While the documentary builds its devastating argument that America has restricted black freedom since slaves were packed into ships destined for the colonies, it also has bright moments. Old photos and home videos give viewers a taste of the joy black families felt when their cars freed them from separate train journeys.
“The access to freedom that all Americans felt was particularly vivid among African Americans,” Burns said.
In one of her final interviews before her death at the age of 96 last year, famed Creole chef Leah Chase recalls the heyday of black motor guides like the Green Book, which lists companies where black travelers can safely shop, eat, and in the separated USA can stay
Another engaging sequence visits black resorts, including Oak Bluffs.
“Cutting out Oak Bluffs as a haven for African American vacationers is a crucial historical part of that story,” said Burns.
Cars also fueled the civil rights movement, allowing black and white activists to meet and travel together from city to city.
“The African American civil rights activists and their white accomplices drive around,” said Burns. In the film, Ms. Chase tells how she took shelter in her New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase’s.
“The Freedom Riders – they made the plans right here in this restaurant,” recalls Ms. Chase. “This was a safe haven for all of us.”
Against these uplifting scenes, the filmmakers weigh a number of worse consequences.
When the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination against businesses in the mid-1960s, travel guides ceased publication and many of the black-owned tourist establishments went under. Others were leveled for the construction of highways that cut through minority neighborhoods.
And travel itself is still risky for black drivers, as footage from dash cameras and viewers has increasingly shown. In several interviews, black parents reflect on the need to tell their children how to behave during a police stop if they are to survive.
“White Americans cannot understand the terrible horror that reigns in a racist society,” Christopher West, professor at Pasadena City College, told the filmmakers.
Mr. Burns hopes the documentary will inspire more people to recognize the persistence of racial enforcement and to oppose it.
“This is not an anti-police film,” he said. “We need our police. They are the foundation of our community. “
However, the film argues that modern policing still has roots in southern slave patrols and Jim Crow’s policies of controlling where black people could be and go.
“Nothing fills me with greater anger and dismay than the idea that there is no such thing as systemic, structural racism,” said Burns. “This story, like any story, is a call to action. When you see it, now you know what’s going on and then you have to say, “What am I going to do about it?”
Island moviegoers got an early glimpse of Driving While Black as a work in progress at a screening of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival in August 2019 that included a question-and-answer session with Mr. Burns and Mr. Lewis.
“I was so proud of the vineyard. I was so moved, ”said Mr. Burns this week. “In the history of this film’s unfolding, that night was transformative for the filmmakers. Man, have we redoubled our commitment to what we did? “
Mr Burns said the next project he and Mr Lewis are working on is about 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the writer of the Divine Comedy.
The ninth episode in his PBS series New York: A documentary is also in the works, he said.
“There’s a lot on our minds these days,” said Mr. Burns. “I feel privileged.”