Roger Ross Williams knew his new virtual reality documentary, Traveling While Black, was impactful. He couldn’t watch the film about the perils of traveling as an African America, both in the past and still today, without crying.
But he wasn’t expecting the sight that greeted him after a screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
“I knew the impact it had on me—when I saw the full rendering of the film, I was destroyed,” he says. “But I didn’t realize that it had the potential to have that impact on white people.”
A white couple came out of the screening in tears and hugged Williams, who is black. “They told me they had never been privy to the kinds of conversations we had in that space, a black space, with black people leading the conversation. And that it was a privilege to watch.”
The reaction affirmed to Williams that, nine years after he first began considering the idea for the documentary, he had made the right decision in how to present it.
The film tells black travelers’ stories from the setting of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a 61-year-old restaurant in Washington, D.C., next to the Lincoln Theatre, which is where Williams got the idea for the doc. He went there to watch a play produced by Bonnie Nelson Schwartz about Victor Green, the author of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide helping African Americans travel safely throughout the country during the Jim Crow era.
Williams wanted to tell the story of what it was like to travel in that era. But he had a lot of false starts before he finally settled on the presentation for Traveling While Black after meeting with the founders of Felix & Paul Studios, a VR studio.
“When we met Roger, he knew what he wanted to do with the piece, in terms of the effect he wanted it to have, but he didn’t know how to get there,” says Paul Raphaël, the studio’s titular Paul. “We explored different ways to do that, and after many iterations, it got us to the VR documentary.”
Traveling, which is co-directed with Ayesha Nadarajah, offers a look at Ben’s Chili Bowl as it appeared decades ago and today.
One of the most moving scenes is an interview with Samaira Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, an unarmed black child killed by police when he was playing with a pellet gun. The documentary includes impactful footage from the shooting interspersed with Rice’s account of how she found out about Tamir’s death. She describes the wrenching decision she had to make between accompanying her son to the hospital in the front seat of an ambulance (they wouldn’t let her ride in back with him) or staying with her remaining children at the scene of the shooting.
“The hope of Samaira Rice, and why she wanted to do this interview, was she doesn’t want people to turn away from it. Let him be a symbol for what is wrong with America,” Williams says. “They took her child. Seeing her talk for the first time about his murder in virtual reality is more powerful than if it was traditional TV. You can’t turn away from it.”
“With VR, you are no longer just watching it but a part of it,” says Raphaël. “You are a participant. It changes the nature of your experience at quite a fundamental level.”
Traveling is nominated for a 2019 Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Interactive Program, which will be handed out during the Sept. 14 and 15 Creative Arts ceremony.