Not So Open Roads: Filmmakers Unearth History of Racism in ‘Driving While Black’

By Parker Diakite – A new documentary, “Driving While Black,” unveils the narrative that far too many Black people know to be true: Black people face danger behind the wheel.

There are so many stories that it’s hard to keep count.   Sandra Bland died in a jail cell after a traffic stop,  Philando Castile was shot dead by police in his car following a traffic stop, George Floyd was sitting in his car before ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on his neck for more than 8 minutes, and Rayshard Brooks, who had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car and failed a field sobriety test, was fatally shot.

Not So Open Roads: Filmmakers Unearth History of Racism in 'Driving While Black'
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These are just some of the stories we know.

But the filmmakers of “Driving While Black” are taking a deeper dive and examining the history of why being behind the wheel can be a death sentence for Black people.

Through archival footage and a series of interviews, the film examines the history of African Americans on the road from the depths of the Depression to the height of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, exploring deeply embedded dynamics of race, space, and mobility in America during one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in American history.

“There are still so many dangers of being on the road,” said Allyson Hobbs, a Stanford University associate professor in the film. “I think we’re in a time right now where African Americans are feeling a similar kind of fear as their grandparents felt in the 1930s and 40s.”

Enduring racism while on the road is what this film is all about.   Throughout the documentary, there will be highs and lows and personal stories from famous Black Americans, including Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall, with video clips of people getting stopped, pulled over, and sometimes worse.

Curator and historian Gretchen Sorin spent 20 years researching Black mobility and wrote the book the film is based on

“Driving While Black” will also serve as a celebration of how African Americans prevailed and embraced their freedom to travel.

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