A person could watch Roger Ross Williams’ “Traveling While Black” on The New York Times’ website, where it was first posted in January.
But if you haven’t seen it through a virtual reality headset, as viewers can at Salt Lake City’s Broadway Centre Cinemas starting this week, “you basically haven’t seen it,” Williams said.
“The beauty of VR, especially with a subject like this, is that you can’t escape it,” Williams said in a phone interview last week. “You are trapped in that reality, in that world. You can’t eat popcorn or candy, or glance at your cellphone or your watch. You have no choice but to experience what you are experiencing in every way.”
“Traveling While Black” will be presented as a VR exhibit in the lobby of the Broadway, starting Tuesday, Oct. 8, and running through Dec. 31. Admission is free.
The documentary, which premiered in the New Frontier section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a series of conversations about the struggles African Americans have faced over the decades.
The interviews start with people who dealt with restrictions traveling through segregated areas of the country in the 1950s and 1960s. The last interview — with Samaria Rice, whose 12-year-old son Tamir was killed in 2014 by police in Cleveland — shows the pain of racism isn’t confined to the past.
“It’s amazing. I’ve cried in my headset every time so far,” said Barb Guy, marketing director for the Salt Lake Film Society, the nonprofit that runs Broadway and Tower theaters.
'TRAVELING WHILE BLACK’
A VR documentary that captures the experiences of African Americans in the 1950s and today.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
When • Opens Tuesday, Oct. 8, and runs through Dec. 31; during regular movie showtimes, usually from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Admission • Free; limited to 11 viewers at a time.
School groups • The Salt Lake Film Society is working to make the exhibit open to school groups; plans have not been finalized.
The interviews take place in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark diner in Washington, D.C., known as a safe haven for black travelers. People seeing “Traveling While Black” at the Broadway, as they did at Sundance, sit in a black-box set resembling a diner’s interior — providing the sensation of sitting in the booth or at the counter, listening to people telling their stories.
Williams was approached by Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, who had written a play called “Traveling While Black,” nearly a decade ago. Williams wanted to explore what was then called “transmedia” and began experimenting with storytelling forms at the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab.
“I didn’t want to make a traditional documentary,” Williams said. “This is such a subject that calls out to the audience to participate in it, to be a part of it.”
Williams has a long resumé as a documentarian. His 2010 short “Music by Prudence” won him an Academy Award. His feature films “God Loves Uganda” (2013), about the evangelical movement in the African nation, and “Life, Animated” (2016), which follows an autistic man communicating with his family through Disney cartoons, both premiered at Sundance. His next feature — “The Apollo,” about the legendary Harlem music venue — airs on HBO in November.
Williams, working with grants from The New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation, struggled to find the right format for “Traveling While Black.” At one point, he planned to use animation; at another, he hired actors to reenact the conversations. He also went on “VR dating,” spending a year meeting production companies specializing in virtual reality.
Eventually, Williams met Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, co-founders of the Montreal-based Félix & Paul Studios — and was particularly impressed by their VR documentary “The People’s House,” a 2016 tour of the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama.
“They said, ‘Think about a place that is iconic and important, and basing it there,’” Williams said. “Ben’s Chili Bowl is this incredibly iconic place. It’s a safe space for black people, and it’s part of a community. I know the stories in that place and community have something important to say.”
The restaurant was one safe location listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a series of travel guides printed from 1936 to 1966. The Green Book told African American travelers which hotels were open to them, which restaurants would serve them, and which towns were safe to drive through at night. (The guide is mentioned, barely, in last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, “Green Book.”)
Williams said he wanted his film “to really express the experiences African Americans have had traveling in America in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the Green Book, and connect it to the present day, and what we still experience in America.”
Working in VR has technical challenges, Williams said. For one thing, he had to sit in a “video village” outside of the diner, because if he was in the diner, he would show up in the camera array’s 360-degree view. Editing also is tricky, because there’s no cutting away from an interview subject in the middle of a sentence.
“You have to walk out of the room and let things happen, and hope they happen the way you want them to,” he said.
The results can be worth it.
“It’s amazing to watch people experience it,” Williams said. At Sundance and other venues this year, he said, “people were just weeping, crying into their headsets. I saw this couple holding hands across the table … as they were experiencing it. It’s some very powerful stuff.”