PBS documentary ‘Driving While Black,’ chronicling racism on the road, premieres this week
'Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,' a film adaption, was directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns
In February, author Gretchen Sorin published her book “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights,” exploring the decades-long history of Black Americans enduring the dangers of racism while traveling.
The book will be the basis of a new documentary of the same name set to air on PBS this week.
Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America, a film interpretation of Sorin’s book, will air on the public broadcast station on Tuesday.
The project “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 along the way the deeply embedded dynamics of race, space and mobility in America during one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in American history,” a press release reads.
Sorin, a distinguished professor and director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, and prolific documentary filmmaker Ric Burns are co-directors of the film. Burns has won Emmy Awards for his PBS documentaries on Andy Warhol and Eugene O’Neill in 2006. Sorin has conducted more than two decades of research on the topic of Black mobility.
Burns is the younger brother of esteemed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose work is a compendium of American history covering the Civil War, jazz and Prohibition, among other critical topics.
Driving While Black explores how African-Americans in the early to mid-20th century found refuge in owning automobiles, but still faced racial prejudice and violence.
“The automobile is really good because it frees African Americans from the Jim Crow bus and the Jim Crow train,” Sorin said in a CNN interview. “But, at the same time, there are dangers on the road.”
The documentary will feature interviews and commentary from various writers and scholars, including Sorin herself, MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder and Stanford University history professor Allyson Hobbs. The film will also feature personal accounts from Black citizens who experienced racist treatment throughout history.
Discussion of “The Green Book,” the historic pamphlet of safe havens and businesses for Black travelers during the Jim Crow era, will be included in the film.
The film will connect the dots of the past to present incidents of Black Americans being accosted and even killed while traveling in their vehicles, such as Sandra Bland, Philando Castile and Rayshard Brooks.
“There are still so many dangers of being on the road,” says Hobbs. “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.”
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