VR FOR ACTION

Traveling While Black explores black America past and present.

When Director Roger Ross Williams was a child, his family would pack everything into their car and drive the 14-hour journey from Philadelphia to Charleston, SC, in one shot. As a kid, Williams never understood why. “They did this because they had to,” he says. “This was the way black people traveled in America.”

For three decades, an alternate atlas called The Green Book guided African-American travelers through Jim Crow-era America to safe spaces such as gas stations, restaurants and hotels. Victor Green, the book’s creator, anticipated that the guide would someday become unnecessary. And while it is no longer printed, for many black Americans the book’s raison d’être remains painfully resonant today.

In his poignant 360° documentary Traveling While Black, Williams depicts how the dangers and difficulties that African-Americans navigated generations ago still linger. “‘Traveling while black’ is a term people use to illustrate that in America when you are black and you are going from point A to point B, you are always at risk,” Williams says. At a time marked by heightened racial hostility and division in the United States, Williams believes Victor Green’s book is now a living part of the black American subconscious. “We carry the history of what has happened here and gravitate toward places we know are safe,“ he says.

In Traveling While Black VR, the immersion of 360° footage draws us into living history lessons told around a booth in Ben’s Chili Bowl. The Washington, D.C., restaurant has been a mainstay of the African-American community since 1958, bearing witness to significant Civil Rights milestones that are woven into the film in powerful snippets of footage. From the stirring memories of Civil Rights leader Courtland Cox to the heartbreaking words of Samaria Rice, whose young son Tamir was killed by police in 2014, VR allows Williams to connect the parallels of the past to the present.

Williams was moved to tears the first time he watched the completed film.“It was an unbelievable deep cry that was all of this pain coming to the surface,” he says, noting that people of all skin colors have had similar reactions. “I think what they all are reacting to is this profound, empathetic place of pain and suffering.” For Williams, when a viewer is immersed in the experience, they’re moved to take action.

Says one viewer who grew up during the Civil Rights era, “Stories have the power to change us.” Another viewer who came of age in the 1960s notes that the film’s storytelling offers an opportunity for healing, allowing viewers to see through a lens they can never experience. Williams hopes to spur conversations about these longtime restrictions of movement and inspire viewers to consider solutions. “How do we gain empathy for what it’s like to be a black person in America, past, present and future?” he asks us.