The VR documentary by Roger Ross Williams, Traveling While Black is set at Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, DC. The restaurant was one of the 'safe places' African-American travelers could go during the mid-1950s.FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS
At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, Roger Ross Williams, the first African American director to win an Oscar for his short subject film Music by Prudence, premiered his first virtual reality (VR) documentary called Traveling While Black.
The 19-minute VR film takes the viewer on a journey to the segregationist environment of the 1950s right up to the current police violence in an emotional 3D/360-degree experience.
The VR documentary was based on a 2010 play called The Green Book which put a spotlight on America during the time of the Jim Crow laws. The play was based on a real-life road trip survival handbook published in 1936 by the same name that gave travel tips to help African-Americans avoid racist and potentially life-threatening establishments along their journey. The VR documentary is set in one of those 'safe establishments' listed in the Green Book, Ben’s Chili Bowl, in Washington D.C.
Ross Williams said that VR allowed him to fully immerse the viewers in Traveling While Black in a way that traditional filmmaking simply cannot do.
"When you experience this documentary in VR it's all around you, and you can't escape it," said Ross Williams. "Once the headset goes on, there are no external distractions. In the same way, we can't escape our blackness or the reality of being black in America, I didn't want people to be able to escape the experience they have when watching Traveling While Black and this immersive feeling could only be achieved through VR."
Ross Williams says that the project started as a way to talk about this forgotten period in history.
"But, the more I began to think about the past, I realized that not a lot has changed today. I thought of Henry Louis Gates being harrassed standing on his front porch; Ving Rhames being held at gunpoint in the doorway to his home and Tamir Rice, a child, who was shot and killed in a playground in his own neighbourhood," said Ross Williams.
"These and countless other incidents remind me that the risk we face just leaving our homes and our need for safe spaces are just as prevalent as they were during the days of The Green Book," said Ross Williams.
"As a black person you feel a sense of relief when you enter a safe space, and you don’t have to be on guard," Ross Williams said. "We're often always on guard. When I walk down the street, especially if I see a police officer, I tense up. If I'm driving somewhere and a cop car starts to follow me, I get nervous. There's a violent history that comes with traveling while black in America, and as a black person you carry that history with you."
Neel Patel, a freelance journalist who writes about technology, can relate to this fear.
Patel wrote the essay, What It's Like to Fly When the TSA Profiles You for Thrillist after he noticed an increase in his stress and anxiety when he passed through airports shortly after Trump was elected.
"I was actually in Thailand during the election and came back a few days later, and even before he was inaugurated I could sense things shifting in a particular direction," said Patel. "TSA was stopping me more, pulling me aside more frequently for “additional screening,” checking my bags more frequently."
Patel, who is of Indian descent, says he wrote the Thrillist piece because he wanted to give a glimpse into what it's like for him when he travels to people who aren’t minorities and haven't been on the receiving end of racial profiling.
"I can’t leave things up to chance and leave room for error. I have to keep my emotions and facial expressions in check and know the rules much more rigorously than others because I know I’m going to deal with experiences that cause me to lose time as well as being outright humiliating and debasing," added Patel.
Patel echos Ross Williams sentiment about the importance of experiencing something you can't escape. He said he believes that giving people the opportunity to step into an experience like Traveling While Black that's entirely foreign to them can only serve to help learn empathy and understand more closely the choices he and others have to make, even for a simple thing like flying.
Patel believes VR can be very useful in this experiential storytelling, but it has to be done well.
"It can’t appear like a technological gimmick or some sort of novelty—it has to be far enough that it can really simulate an experience. The entire experience needs to show that there’s a loss of choice and control, something that’s key to understanding what racial bias does to people, and why it’s so frustrating to deal with," said Patel. "A good example of using VR to look at discrimination is Jena Friedman's Adult Swim series, Soft Focus, where she used VR in the second episode to show male gamers the sort of sexual harassment women are inundated with."
"I think technology can play a positive role in changing biases [..], but the key is whether it’s able to impart empathy or not," said Patel. "Most technology that people push forward is just designed to make life a little more convenient, and that convenience does nothing to rectify or reverse discrimination or bias problems."
"If you think of technology as key to education, then you can approach it as a tool that can teach and can impart new insight, new wisdom, and new empathy," added Patel.
Ross Williams says that the VR experience of Traveling While Black is a way to revisit that history and hopefully, viewers will take away a deeper understanding of this part of our collective past.
"It's also a way to talk about the present crisis that black people still face while traveling today and hopefully the piece will help start conversations about solutions for the future," added Ross Williams.
Ross Williams is currently working on a docu-series for Netflix and a narrative film for Amazon Studios.
Traveling While Black was produced Felix & Paul Studios in partnership with the New York Times and also available in the Oculus Store for Oculus Rift, Oculus Go and Gear VR.