The medium of virtual reality has been marshaled to explore everything from nature to outer space, roller coaster thrills, the human body and fictional stories, but it’s never been put to use quite in the way of Traveling While Black.
The Emmy-nominated VR film directed by Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams immerses viewers in a fundamental aspect of the black experience in America: the peril of facing racially-motivated assault in public settings and the need for safe spaces free of that threat.
“It’s a big moment, almost a groundbreaking moment for virtual reality,” Williams tells Deadline. “You don’t think about VR as a tool of social justice…I think very few [of] these sort of social justice pieces are made in VR.”
The VR documentary unfolds mostly in Ben’s Chili Bowl, an institution in Washington, D.C. famous for its conviviality, but most importantly as a place where African Americans could gather for a meal and conversation without fear of being antagonized in public. Dating back even before it was a restaurant, the venue appeared in The Negro Motorist Green Book, the guide launched in 1936 by postal worker Victor Green that compiled restaurants, hotels, bars and other hospitable places for African American travelers in the north and south.
“The reason why Ben’s Chili Bowl was an important base to tell the story was because it has a long history as a safe space for African Americans. It is where President Obama—he went there and had a hot dog after he took the oath of office…It is what The Green Book was all about.”
Traveling While Black begins with notes from Jason Moran’s piano score, then provides some history of The Green Book before dissolving to the interior of Ben’s Chili Bowl. There Sandra Butler-Truesdale, a fifth generation Washingtonian born in 1939, recalls the segregated DC of her childhood, where racist insults were commonplace.
Virginia Ali, who founded Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 with her late husband Ben, talks of the atmosphere they created.
“From the very day that we opened until the current time it’s still a safe haven for people,” Ali observes in the film. “We invited the community in, and we started with the neighborhood young men that thought this was home for them.”
“The main thing about VR is that you are totally 100% immersed in a story,” the director notes. “It allows the viewer, whether the viewer is an African American who has experienced this [racial animus]—all African Americans have—or even if you’re not, you get to be in a black space that you normally wouldn’t have access to, and really experience that sense of community that happens in places like Ben’s Chili Bowl and places in The Green Book.”
Williams draws a sharp distinction between Traveling While Black and the Oscar-winning 2018 film Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly, a fictionalized narrative “inspired by a true story” about a white man chauffeuring a black musician through the Jim Crow south of 1962.
“Our stories, our music have always been stolen from us, and I think the Hollywood version of The Green Book is an example of that,” Williams declares. Farrelly’s movie is “a totally different story because this [Traveling While Black] is a story of life or death, and danger, and community, and all of those things. But it’s our story. It’s for us to tell. It’s not for anyone else.”
There’s another key distinction between the Hollywood film and Williams’ VR project. Green Book was set entirely in the past, at what might be called a comfortable distance from the present moment. Traveling While Black, however, does not excuse viewers from confronting contemporary reality. It includes footage of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, and the testimony of Samiria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African-American boy fatally shot by a policeman in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014. In the film, she sits in Ben’s Chili Bowl with Virginia Ali and others around her, describing the day her son was killed.
“They would not allow me to touch [his body]…They said he was evidence,” she recalls. “I wasn’t finished raising him. I wasn’t finished nurturing him. And America robbed me. Yup, they robbed me.”
“I think we all know America hasn’t really dealt with the issues around racism, and slavery, and the legacy of slavery,” Williams states. “I think that we have to have, in a way, ‘conversation starters,’ and I hope that this VR piece, Traveling While Black, is just that.”
Traveling While Black, co-directed by Ayesha Nadarajah, represents the 300th film in the New York Times Op-Docs series. The Emmy nomination for Outstanding Original Interactive Program brought recognition for multiple partners on the project, including the pioneering VR company Felix & Paul Studios, created by Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël. Williams says he decided to go with Felix & Paul after a long period of what he calls “VR dating,” when he considered working with a variety of companies.
“I think the biggest challenge or fear that we had was doing justice to the material. It was very, very sensitive,” Raphaël tells Deadline. “It had the potential of being a very impactful piece. And we didn’t want to mess that up, quite frankly.”
Felix & Paul has collaborated on other VR films with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, President Clinton, LeBron James, director Wes Anderson and Cirque du Soleil, among others.
“We were there really to help [Roger] adapt his vision,” Raphaël notes. “He knew what he wanted to say and he knew what the impact of this piece had to be and we were just there to make sure that that was as optimized as possible.”
For Williams, recognition for Traveling While Black is an honor, but he says its significance comes down to one thing.
“What I think an Emmy nomination does, it’s just more people will get to see it. That’s what’s really important,” he comments. “If we would be so lucky as to win, then even more people would. So, it’s all good.”