'Driving While Black': powerful, thought-provoking

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By Kevin McDonough

"See the USA in your Chevrolet" was the opening line to an upbeat ditty Dinah Shore sang in 1957, an anthem linking the open road, Detroit steel and national identity. For the target audience of Dinah Shore's TV show and commercials, driving America's highways was nothing less than one's patriotic duty.

The American faith in the open road was hardly limited to Madison Avenue or even "squares" who watched Dinah Shore. Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road" was practically the bible of the Beatnik generation in the 1950s. A decade later, the hippie counterculture announced its conquest of Hollywood with the triumph of the road movie "Easy Rider."

From the Yellow Brick Road to Route 66, the open road was more about transformation than transportation. It's where you achieve your dreams, "find yourself" and actualize your potential.

If you're white.

A profound and expansive documentary that crams a lot of thoughtful history into its two-hour run, "Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America" (9 p.m., PBS, TV-PG, check local listings) uses the theme of transportation - and its denial - to explore the history of Black America.

One of the reasons the recent New York Times series The 1619 Project has resulted in such vitriolic criticism in some quarters is that it doesn't trade in the abstraction of "racism," but spotlights the fact that for centuries, America's economy was based on the ownership of one people by another.

African slaves were not merely farmers, servants or workers: They were property. As such, an entire system was devised to keep that valuable commodity from wandering off. And even after slaves were emancipated, severe restrictions and "Black Codes" were enacted to limit where former slaves could travel, spend the night and show their faces.

The theme of movement works well in this expansive discussion. So many chapters in this unpleasant history concern motion itself. From the "Middle Passage" that brought slaves to these shores to the Underground Railroad of escaped slaves, the theme of controlled movement holds. Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that codified Jim Crow laws for half of the 20th century, involved the freedom of Black passengers to ride the rails. The modern civil rights movement was sparked by a bus boycott and amplified by the brutalization of Freedom Riders some years later.

"Driving" devotes a chapter to "The Green Book: A Negro Motorists Guide," published between 1936 and 1966, a guide to Black-friendly gas stations, restaurants and inns. It would inspire the 2018 drama "Green Book" as well as a place in the lurid HBO series "Lovecraft County."

"Driving" takes its theme right up to the present day as the Black Lives Matter movement challenged the ability of police and "stand your ground" citizens to control the mobility of a supposedly free people through abject terrorism, often under the guise of public safety and law enforcement.

"Driving" follows an episode of "Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr." (8 p.m., PBS, TV-PG, check local listings) discussing genealogy with Diane von Furstenberg. The series' host was himself subject to an incident right out of "Driving While Black" when he was arrested for suspected burglary and handcuffed while standing on his own front porch.

Attempts by then-President Obama to create a "teachable moment" and discuss the case with both Gates and the arresting officer resulted in a firestorm of "outrage" that helped shape political forces that are very much with us during this political season.

TONIGHT'S OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

• An abandoned orphan ponders the architecture of human thought on "Cosmos: Possible Worlds" (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14).

• First impressions may not pan out on "FBI" (9 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).

• The AI has left the building on "Next" (9 p.m., Fox, TV-14).

• Apparently, a possible Game 7 of the NBA Finals (9 p.m., ABC) is the only thing keeping us from the return of "The Bachelorette."

• Bash has second thoughts on "Transplant" (10 p.m., NBC, TV-14).

CULT CHOICE

Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker star in the 1993 horror comedy "Hocus Pocus" (8:20 p.m., Freeform, TV-14). A sequel is in the works.

SERIES NOTES

A tale of Pearl Harbor on "NCIS" (8 p.m., CBS, r, TV-PG) * Jane Lynch hosts "Weakest Link" (8 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) * Rising damp on "Swamp Thing" (8 p.m., CW, TV-14) * "Ellen's Game of Games" (9 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) * Modern fairy tales on "Tell Me a Story" (9 p.m., CW, TV-14) * Real cases on "The FBI Declassified" (10 p.m., CBS, TV-14).

LATE NIGHT

Ralph Macchio appears on "Conan" (12 p.m., TBS, r) * Sarah Paulson and H. Jon Benjamin drop by "Late Night With Seth Meyers" (12:35 a.m., NBC, r).

© 2020, United Feature Syndicate