Based on the real-life experiences of writer and lead actor Dominique Purdy, Driving While Black is an arresting film that explores Purdy’s real life experiences growing up as a person of color in LA and his run ins with police. Starring Dominique Purdy. Directed by Paul Sapiano.
by The People’s Minister of Information JR
“Driving While Black” is one of the few comical films in the San Francisco Black Film Festival this year, yet its subject matter deals with a not-so-funny topic. What I liked most about this film is that is a satirical look at how police of all ethnicities treat young Black men.
The script writing made this film a comedy while it did not belittle the terrorism that is wreaked onto the Black community on an hourly basis in this country. “Driving While Black” will be screening as a part of the San Francisco Black Film Festival on Saturday, June 13, at 6 p.m. at the Variety Club Preview Room, 582 Market St.
I sat down and talked to the writers, Dominique Purdy and Paul Sapiano, about how they came up with the concept to write a comedy about police terrorism. Dominique is also the lead actor in the movie and Paul is also the director. Check them out in their own words.
M.O.I. JR: Dominique, what made you want to write a script about police terrorism in a funny but real way, instead of in a serious way?
Dominique Purdy: I wanted to make a film about this subject first off because I felt it was necessary. I’ve seen plenty of dramas about police harassment but never a comedy, even though there are still pieces of drama in this one. When me and my homies – Black, Hispanic etc. – share stories about some shit that happened to us with the cops the night before or a week ago or whenever it comes up , it’s always a bit humorous because we are so accustomed to it. We grew up like this.
The things cops do and say are sometimes so ridiculous it’s funny. We navigate throughout life dealing with them like weather on a day to day basis. Racial profiling by the police happens so much in America throughout history that it just became a punchline and people would laugh at jokes cracked about the issue, but I don’t think White people really understood it.
“Driving While Black”
So when they would hear Black people lash out on the topic seriously, they would have this sort of attitude like “Oh stop complainin’, you niggers, and just clean up your community” It’s just like Richard Pryor’s “niggas vs. police” joke, which is why it was referenced in the movie.
Humor is a good way to get a point across to people about serious issues, so they can laugh and understand then think deep about it. In the times we live in today in America on this issue, I feel this is the type of film that can bring all people together to comprehend on another level what Black people and lots of people of color deal with.
M.O.I. JR: Paul, how did it feel being a white guy and directing a film written by a Black man about Black people’s experience with the police? Did it give you new insight?
Dominique Purdy: I’m gonna respond to this question even though it’s to Paul because I do know it gave him some insight. I put him and other white people involved in this film up on so much game during the process of working on this. Things they didn’t even know I knew about police procedures too because of how many confrontations I’ve had with police my whole life.
Paul Sapiano: To be honest, when we first started this process, I never really considered the fact that I was a white guy directing this movie. Dom and I were working on other scripts together.
Then, as Dom said, we were sitting around one day and he was telling me about his police related experiences and we thought this is a very relevant subject, so let’s try and write a comedy about it. Now the film is made, the fact that I am a white dude is glaringly apparent.
Humor is a good way to get a point across to people about serious issues, so they can laugh and understand then think deep about it.
I don’t feel qualified to answer questions on race because I have learned so much throughout this, and even now I know that I cannot ever fully appreciate the Black experience in the USA. But I have realized how much more ignorant I was before we started.
It only took a few times driving around with Dom for me to notice that he gets tailed by police more than me – and I am hardly a regular-guy-law-obeying citizen, so this was a bit of an eye opener. Before we started production, we had a town hall meeting at an after-hours called “the overpass,” and dozens of Black guys – upstanding citizens, military types, lawyers, business men – all had basically the same story of life-long police harassment. I knew profiling went on, but I had not realized how pervasive it was.
Working with Dom was great because he kept things honest. I originally wanted to have a happy ending where the cops help the main character in the end, but that just didn’t feel authentic to Dom, and we went in a different and much better direction
M.O.I. JR: What made you two work together on this project?
Dominique Purdy: Paul and I already knew each other from his first film he did, “Boys’ and Girls’ Guide to Getting Down.” He gave me a small part in that film and he let me do my thang – talk shit and improv all my lines.
So when I would roll by his pad, I would tell him some shit that happened to me the night before with the cops. And from my point of view, these stories were funny and fucked up at the same time. One day we were just like, man, let’s do a comedy movie about this.
One thing about Paul is he’s down to do shit that’s never been done – and edgy, wild shit at that. When we were shooting this pull-over scene off of Jefferson and 11th, this Black Woman came out of her hair salon who knew we were filming a movie and said, “Hey, is that the director?” I said, “Yeah.” Then she said, “He’s British, huh?” I said, “Yeah, how’d you know that?” She said, “Cuz ain’t no regular White man gone make no movie called ‘Driving While Black’!”
Paul Sapiano: We worked together on “The Boys’ and Girls’ Guide to Getting Down” and “Hollywood Sex Wars.” He’s a funny motherfucker. And, like me, he has a drive to do things that haven’t been done before and not just to push the envelope but to tear that shit up and find a different delivery method altogether. I think we complement each other well.
M.O.I. JR: Paul, how long did it take you to write the script to “Driving While Black,” and did you write all of the jokes yourself?
Dominique Purdy: Paul did not write any of this himself. It was a collaboration for the structure. But this shit is based on my actual life, so a lot of the jokes came from experiences that we expanded on. Also I’m a big fan of keepin’ shit loose, so on set, I always add shit the day of; and I like the actors to be natural and authentic, so I bounce things off of them and switch it up each take so they can have fun.
Paul Sapiano: The script took a long time – maybe a couple of years. And it was a collaboration. We wanted to do a comedy because it’s the best way to get through to people. I saw “Fruitvale,” but I was so bummed out afterwards I don’t want to see it again.
“DWB” has a lot in it and is “accessible” by all races. We made sure to include characters of all races to make this not just a film about Blacks and whites but more diverse than that. We also wanted a balanced view of the cops – they aren’t all complete cunts – and I feel that by doing that, people respect the film more and it will have a greater reach and the potential to change more attitudes.
“DWB” has a lot in it and is “accessible” by all races.
M.O.I. JR: How did you cast for this film? How long did it take to shoot?
Dominique Purdy: Casting took about a couple weeks. We got some actors and some were just homies of mine that weren’t actors but I knew could pull off certain parts.
In casting I knew immediately who was the person right for the role when they reminded me of the person it was based on. I was very particular, and Paul trusted my judgment.
That’s why there is such a large cast because to me life has a large cast. No matter how large or small the part, it adds something to the film and keeps you locked in. We filmed this movie in a little over a month, though the script was finished in 2013. So it’s been a long process.
Paul Sapiano: We cast the actors in the film with a wonderful casting agent called Lynne Quirion. And we also used a lot of “real people” who were our friends and various people we know but not professional actors.
It’s very important to us that the film be authentic. There’s a gangster in the film who is really in a gang and who works out in the lobby of my building. Nobody tells him he can’t do that.
All of the scenes with the lead character Dimitri and his friends are all Dom’s friends in real life. That keeps it real, and they work well together as they are comfortable. And it’s fun to work with your friends.
M.O.I. JR: I liked the similarities that you included in the film about how white cops and Black cops treat Black people. Did you intend to send that subtle or not so subtle message, considering that some Blacks wrongly think that having more Black cops will ease police terrorism in our neighborhoods in this country?
Dominique Purdy: Yes, having Black cops profile in the film as well as white cops was necessary because that has happened to me. Black Cops sometimes are just as prejudiced.
The goal was to show as many sides to this issue as we could because it isn’t just one sided. It really gets you to think about cops takin’ advantage of the power they have with a badge. And you see we also show when there’s cool cops too. We wanted to be well rounded on the issue and still get the point across to you without being preachy.
M.O.I. JR: What do you want people specifically in political hot-spots that are leading the fight against police terrorism like Ferguson, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Baltimore to get out of this movie?
Dominique Purdy: I want this film to be a win for the movement. I hope it can give people who have never experienced this a new perspective into the issue. I feel this film will open up dialogue between all races to talk about what is and has been going on America with police profiling, brutality and harassment.
I want people to see how and why we as Black people say, “Fuck the police.” How we are treated from youth makes us form the attitudes we have towards police as we grow up.
I think even cops can watch this movie and get an understanding of things from a Black point of view. People can look at this film and say I can relate or that happened to me. Someone may not have experienced harassment by the police but may watch the film with a friend or family member who has and they can now converse on the issue.
I feel this film will open up dialogue between all races to talk about what is and has been going on America with police profiling, brutality and harassment.
The police are out here killin’ people because of their skin color and all people need to unify to let America know that this shit needs to change and it needs to change now. I hope people really enjoy the message through the humor in the film and most importantly take the jewels of knowledge and spread it to their peeps.
Paul Sapiano: I’ll let Dom answer about the Black perspective. From my point of view, I hope that white guys see this film and get some sense of how commonplace police harassment is. I sincerely believe that most whites have no idea how prevalent this is. I didn’t when we first started.
And I hope they get to understand the psychology of how all of this affects a Black guy. My favorite part of the film are the scenes where we see flashbacks of Dom’s childhood showing negative interactions with police from a very young age – this helped me understand the foundation of the mistrust between Black guys and the cops.
M.O.I. JR: When does your film screen at the SF Black Film Festival? Will you two be in attendance?
Paul Sapiano: I believe our movie screens the next to last day of the fest, which is the 13th of June. And yes, most definitely we will be there.
Dominique Purdy: Yes, we will be a the festival. I can’t wait.
M.O.I. JR: How could people stay up on what’s going on with your movie online?
Dominique Purdy: To stay updated on the film, people should go to our site, drivingwhileblackmovie.com.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.