Driving While Black — a 2-hour documentary — premieres nationally on PBS tonight (Tuesday, October 13, 9 p.m. EDT).
The film explores the history of race-based restrictions on mobility in the US, including slavery, segregation, the very real dangers of traveling in many parts of the country, the construction of highways through politically powerless black neighborhoods, and the current dangers of “driving while black.”
The Ric Burns project was fast-tracked after the deaths of George Floyd and Jacob Blake this summer.
Working at that furious pace was Brian Keane. The 1971 Staples High School graduate scored the music.
Keane — an Emmy-winning composer with 20 nominations — has worked on most of Burns’ films. He’s also adept with music from many cultures, having scored the only Academy Award-winning Chinese documentary ever (“The Blood of Yingzhou District”).
Keane is noted too for his work with Turkish music and Omar Faruk Tekbilek (he sold out Carnegie Hall in 2018, and similar venues worldwide). He also scored Grammy-winning Irish music with the Chieftains, and produced Linda Ronstadt singing Mexican tunes.
Just as important for Driving While Black, Keane scored the music to Henry Hampton’s films.
He was America’s first major Black documentarian. his 1980’s multi-part television show “Eyes on the Prize” is a classic.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, there were few minorities in television production. Hampton used his fame to hire top documentary professionals — mostly white — to mentor inexperienced Black men and women who wanted to learn the craft.
Keane was one of those mentors.
Though the Driving While Black budget was small — and the turnaround time quick — Keane was eager to participate. The chance to influence millions of viewers, the timing and the subject’s importance all resonated.
Most of the musicians working with him were Black, and old friends. Singer Janice Dempsey told him, “music has no color.” As he worked, and talked, he realized that — without exception — his Black friends and the film’s musical collaborators have been affected by institutional racism.
Because of the rich history of black music in America — gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop — and because many of his musician friends had been out of work due to COVID, Keane decided to use PBS’ limited budget to hire great musicians.
He forwent his usual fee, opting to make “a soundtrack that would raise awareness further, but would also be compelling musically.”
The main theme took a 1947 Alan Lomax recording of Black prisoners singing while working in a chain gang. Keane set it to African and hip hop beats, scoring it with modern urban jazz elements, a viola de gamba to connect to colonial times, sound design, and tension atmospheres.
He says, “It gets across the point the film tries to convey: Racism has been part of America throughout its history, and still very much is today too.”
It includes Blues Hall of Famer Joe Louis Walker, jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker, gospel artist Ada Dyer, and emerging socially conscious artists like Kyla Imani and Jermaine Love Songz.
Marion Meadows performs too. His cousin was shot 27 times and killed by police last year. The video of the incident was lost.
But this would not be an “06880” story without more local connections. Former resident play on the soundtrack too: Dan Barrett (cello) and Murali Coryell (electric guitar).
(Click here to download Brian Keane’s “Driving While Black” soundtrack.)