“Traveling While Black,” a new virtual reality (VR) documentary from Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program in January. Released on the Oculus Go and Oculus Rift headsets, as well as the New York Times Op-Docs page, the film makes a direct connection between segregationist policies of Jim Crow-era America to police violence in the present day. It is Emmy nominated for Outstanding Original Interactive Program, and above and beyond that, the film is leading the charge of VR as an instrument of social change.
Virtual reality is most commonly used in entertainment applications such as video gaming. Consumer virtual reality headsets were first released by video game companies in the 1990s, although it wasn’t until the 2010s when a new wave of application development was set off by the introduction of next-generation commercial headsets by companies like Oculus (Rift). And filmmakers have certainly been riding the wave, even if the 2D experience remains dominant.
For documentarian Williams, who won an Oscar in 2010 for “Music by Prudence,” it was his first VR experience. “It was definitely a challenge, but also exciting to flex different muscles and learn a lot about this relatively new medium,” he said. “I don’t believe VR as a tool of social justice or advocacy is a common idea yet, and I think there’s a great potential with it to change perspectives on a story, and for audiences to really experience a story in a new way that is more impactful.”
The film is set primarily in and around Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark black-owned and operated restaurant in Washington, D.C., that has been an integral part of the neighborhood’s history since its founding in 1958. The restaurant and many of the businesses that were its neighbors on what was known as “Black Broadway” were included in “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a life-saving guide for black travelers during segregation, offering safe and welcoming places of refuge, which also inspired the 2019 Academy Award-winning Best Picture film of the same name.
But Williams’ film is nothing like the contentious Peter Farrelly’s fictionalized account of a true story about a white man chauffeuring a black musician through the Jim Crow south of 1962.
Calling Farrelly’s film an example of an instance in which black Americans are robbed of their own history and culture, Williams emphasizes that his take on the “traveling while black” phenomenon is grounded in a reality that takes into solemn account the real life and death scramble that simply being black was, and continues to be. The film takes viewers on a 19-minute, 360-degree virtual reality journey back in time to a 1950s recreation of Ben’s. Viewers learn about the story of the “Green Book” although, unlike the Oscar-winning movie, Williams’ VR experience is not set entirely in the past, at what might be called a comfortable distance from the present moment. “Traveling While Black” draws a line from the past to the present, and forces audiences to confront contemporary realities as well.
For Williams, who initially explored various approaches to telling this story, including animation and scripted live action, documentary VR was most ideal for maximum impact.
“You can’t escape it because you are immersed in the story in such a powerful way, and you can’t be distracted as you would be with the 2D experience, with our cell phones, tablets etc.,” the filmmaker said. “For example, I wanted to surround the viewer with that all-too familiar footage of the shooting of unarmed black men that we’ve all become numb to. And in this format, especially if you’re not black, you are kind of placed in this reality. And in the case of the commiseration that happens inside Ben’s Chili Bowl, you are allowed to enter a sacred black safe space and engage with conversations that normally wouldn’t be accessible to you, which has the potential to have a profound effect.”
The VR film was inspired by the 2006 play “The Green Book” by Alexander Ramsey Calvin, which Broadway theater, concert, film, and television producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz staged in 2010 at the Lincoln Theatre, which is next to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Nelson Schwartz soon partnered with Williams to produce “Traveling While Black,” which was selected as a 2012 Sundance New Frontiers Lab participant, and would receive a grant from the Institute to further explore how they would tell their story with the new medium.
It wasn’t until he saw Emmy-winning Felix and Paul Studios’ “The People’s House,” a 2017 VR documentary tour of the White House shot during Obama’s final year in office, that Williams became fully convinced that VR was the way to go with “Traveling.” And then the New York Times and Oculus came on board for financing and distribution.
The result of this collaboration, created by Félix and Paul Studios, is an extraordinary experience that invites viewers to traverse decades through America’s racist history, and places them face-to-face with present-day testifiers and contemporary events, ranging from Virginia Ali – who founded Ben’s Chili Bowl with her late husband – as she remembers the safe space they created; to footage of the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers in 1991; and Samaria Rice revisiting the unprovoked and tragic police shooting of her then 12-year-old son, Tamir, in 2014.
Ultimately, for Williams, the message he wants viewers to take away from the experience of watching his VR film is that while progress has certainly been made on the issues the film explores, and the Green Book is no longer quite necessary, there’s still much to be done. “As a black man myself, I’m still fearful when I’m driving and see a police car behind me,” he said. “As black people we are always on edge, and just simply existing is a risk,” he said. “This is a trauma that continues to be part of what it means to live in a country that has never really dealt with its legacy of racism, and so for me, the piece is about having that conversation in a way that we’ve never really done before.”
“In ‘Traveling While Black,’ we sought to use the power of immersive storytelling to bring audiences into communities they would otherwise never access, and hopefully create deeper understanding and impact as a result,” said Paul Raphaël, co-Founder and director of Félix and Paul Studios. “Roger shared this vision with us and our collaboration took the project to new heights.”
And Williams is definitely not done with VR, whether as a medium for social justice work, or narrative cinema, and he’s looking forward to exploring further. “I think there’s an exciting road ahead for it, and I’m looking forward to what VR looks like in another five to 10 years, because it can only evolve from here,” he said. “But what the future holds is anyone’s guess.”
For now, he just hopes that “Traveling While Black” is seen by as wide an audience as possible, and he thinks the Emmy attention the film has been receiving only helps spread awareness of it. “That’s what’s really important,” he said. “And should we would actually win, then even better, because it likely means that a lot more people will want to see it.”
Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 10 through Thursday, Aug. 24 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.