Virtual reality is exactly that: a virtual reality. More often than not, VR is associated with immersing viewers into a gaming experience or a hyper-reality that leaves us in awe. With The Messy Truth, producers Van Jones, Brie Larson and director Elijah Allan-Blitz bring us a different kind of VR experience that is all too real — so real that it will stir up emotions and shock your biases.
The Messy Truth puts the viewer in someone else’s shoes, giving them a lens at life through a different perspective. Through this immersive technology, The Messy Truth gives audiences exactly that as it gives an unsettling look at the timely themes of race, mercy, and redemption through someone else’s eyes — literally.
Allan-Blitz said that they started to work on the project a week after the 2016 election as Donald Trump took office. From immigration to the mistreatment of women to the blatant abuse of power to the killing of Black people at the hands of the police, people continued to grow divided on social and civic issues. The country started to rapidly unravel into a mess that we are drowning in.
Created by Magic Labs media co-founder Jones, The Messy Truth is an all-encompassing VR experience based on real-life incidents pulled from research with Time Magazine. In one episode, we see life through the eyes of a 12-year old Black boy as he and his dad (played by Black Panther‘s Winston Duke) are pulled over by the police. Larson appears in another episode where she is talking to her co-worker who is then sexually harassed by her boss.
The impact of the series earned it the Advanced Imaging Society’s Social Justice Lumiere Award as well as an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Original Interactive Program. The team hopes to continue to immerse people in empathy with future episodes featuring Larson’s fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe peers. Deadline talked to Jones, Larson and Allan-Blitz about their passion project that aims to help us address difficult issues we are facing today and our own biases.
DEADLINE: What were the initial conversations about The Messy Truth? Did you initially want to make it VR or did that surface later on in its development?
VAN JONES: The Messy Truth VR was explicitly designed as a virtual reality experience from the start. When the Trump era began, one thing became painfully clear: a major empathy deficit was going to be a feature, not a bug, of this political period. Virtual reality allows you to – quite literally – see through someone else’s eyes. It is, without question, the best possible medium for this message.
ELIJAH ALLAN-BLITZ: Van and I wanted to see if we could use the same technology that was dividing us, to try and use it to bring us closer together. Technology is only becoming more powerful and just like any powerful tool, what matters is what you do with it. VR has the potential to make the viewer believe what they’re seeing is real, so for us, using it to create empathy and understanding is the ultimate goal.
DEADLINE: At what point in the Trump era were you filming The Messy Truth?
JONES: Elijah and I kicked the project off shortly following Trump’s victory. I, for one, felt that there was a deep lack of understanding on both sides of the aisle. Conservative voters didn’t understand the terror Trump’s campaign had unleashed in immigrant and Muslim communities. Democratic voters in places like New York and Los Angeles didn’t comprehend that a lot of hard-hat and lunch-pail white guys felt completely abandoned by Democrats in the country’s heartland. I knew that the endless shouting matches on cable television weren’t going to move the needle. It felt important to innovate and try something different.
DEADLINE: How did you field these true stories and did you receive a lot of them?
JONES: We worked with Time Magazine to identify the story for the first episode, and with ROC United for the second. The story selection process was more challenging than you might imagine. Most of the stories we considered were too violent and traumatic to show in VR. We wanted to expose viewers to the experience — not cause irreversible psychological harm. We worked hard for about six months to find a story for the first episode that didn’t result in someone getting killed.
BRIE LARSON: We did extensive research to find true stories that wouldn’t be too traumatic for the viewer, and would fit within the parameters of VR. Once we had a draft of our script for the second episode, The Restaurant Opportunity Center and Women in Hospitality United consulted to ensure we were hitting as close to the truth as possible. We are so grateful for their support on this project.
ALLAN-BLITZ: For the first episode, Mia Tramz and her team at Time Magazine helped us find the case we based it on. For the second episode we worked with ROC United to find the specific case. Sexual harassment is three times more likely to happen in the restaurant industry than other industries.
DEADLINE: How did you balance the line of creating something that is empathetic vs. something that can potentially be exploitative?
JONES: We were very careful not to exploit anyone’s story or trigger the audience in a way that would be harmful or traumatizing beyond what each person could handle. Even after such a rigorous selection process, we dialed these stories back from what occurred in reality. We wanted to share experiences that actually happened, but there are extra ethical obligations when depicting something in VR. It’s much more immersive than traditional TV. Our goal was to generate empathy in people who often resist or reject these perspectives. The experience had to be something that could occur on any given day as opposed to the extreme, worst-case scenarios that breakthrough in mainstream media.
LARSON: The project is about creating unity, not more division. When you are in the headset your brain believes that what you are seeing is real so it is important to us that their new memories are impactful but not traumatic.
ALLAN-BLITZ: We spent most of the preproduction process identifying the stories so that they would be impactful, but not exploitative. Both of the episodes are actually less traumatic than the actual events. Because VR is so powerful, we have a responsibility to make sure we’re not creating PTSD in the viewer.
DEADLINE: How has the reaction to the series been?
JONES: The response to the series so far — from the entertainment industry to the most unlikely viewers –has been humbling. We took the first episode that shows an unlawful police stop to the toughest audience of all — the Conservative Political Action Conference. People started out skeptical, but in the end were blown away. We have the most amazing videos of people taking off their NRA hats and Make America Great Again hats to put on our VR headset. Three and a half minutes later, they removed the VR headset and shared that they never considered what it would be like to be a Black child watching his father be threatened by police. Even police officers said that it gave them a completely different set of insights into those situations. Our first episode received a Lumiere award, and now the second episode is nominated for a Primetime Emmy.
ALLAN-BLITZ: It’s been incredible to watch people from all walks of life get to experience the perspective of someone they might initially feel they have nothing in common with.
DEADLINE: After watching and working this series, how has this series made you address your own bias and blindspots and how has it impacted you?
JONES: Few men have had the actual physical experience of having another man violating their space and making unwanted physical advances. It’s hard to really understand what that feels like, even though we know it happens to women all of the time. The second episode with Brie Larson provided me with a new depth of understanding and empathy for what women go through. That immersive experience was significant for me.
LARSON: It has brought immense humility to understand how deeply I cannot know the wide breadth of the human experience. Up until this project I was limited to the experience my body permitted me. I’m inspired to see how this can impact others as it has impacted me.
ALLAN-BLITZ: I’ve learned so much from working on and also sharing these experiences with people from all walks of life. When we took the experience to CPAC, I was immediately struck by how much more we have in common than not. One of the most powerful things Van says is, “There are no throwaway people.”
DEADLINE: Can we expect more episodes?
JONES: Yes. We want to do an episode on immigration with Zoe Saldana and another episode on the opioid crisis in coal country with Josh Brolin.
LARSON: That’s our plan! There is an endless amount of stories to be told. We just need the funding to create more.
ALLAN-BLITZ: We have more episodes with other cast members of The Avengers already lined up. We’re working on raising the money to fund them.