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Virtual reality documentary ‘Traveling While Black’ creates immersive experience

Courtland Cox, an interviewee in the documentary “Traveling While Black” and long-time activist, details some of his experiences facing racism during the height of Jim Crow laws. The virtual-reality documentary lets audience members sit next to and listen to those who have experienced harsh displays of blatant racism during the 1960s through modern times. (Photo Courtesy: Barb Guy)

Walking into a 50s-style diner and donning a video headset is not how the typical documentary begins. 

The scene within this particular headset opens in a dimly-lit theater with gentle piano music playing overhead. Black-and-white scenes in slow motion from the 40s, 50s and early 60s play on the headset while a deep voice explains the significance of the “Green Book.”

“Traveling While Black,” a traveling virtual-reality documentary exhibition, fleshes out the idea that Oscar-winning film “Green Book” introduced by examining how racism is perpetuated in the travel and hospitality industry. 

“The Green Book” — the book itself — was first published in 1936 as a directory of restaurants, bars, hotels and homes that would welcome African-Americans. This guide led African-American travelers through a world riddled with Jim Crow laws and blatant racism. 

Brent Staples, a member of The New York Times’ editorial board, described the documentary in a January 2019 article, “Traveling While Black: The Green Book’s Black History.”

“Traveling While Black” is a part of The New York Times’ Op-Doc series and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival of 2019. 

A virtual-reality headset sits on the diner-style counter at Broadway Theater’s exhibition of “Traveling While Black.” The VR documentary premiered at 2019’s Sundance Film Festival and delves into the history and adversities African-Americans faced and continue to face when traveling through the country. (Marisa Cooper)

Although the film is available in 360-video on its own online, the exhibit allows for deeper immersion because it is set in Ben’s Chili Bowl to match the film. 

The exhibition currently resides at the Salt Lake Film Society’s (SLFS) Broadway Theater, where a diner-style counter and booth seats are crowded with headsets and headphones. As the subjects of “Traveling While Black” recall incidents of humiliation, abuse and even murder based in racism, the audience sits directly next to them in a casual, familiar setting. 

“The brief film offers a revealing view of the Green Book era as told through Ben’s Chili Bowl, a black-owned restaurant in Washington [D.C.],”  he wrote. “[It] reminds us that the humiliations heaped upon African-Americans during that time period extended well beyond the [ones documented in lawsuits].”

Barb Guy, the head of public relations for SLFS, said the set combined with the virtual-reality film creates “a more tangible, tactile experience.” 

She said the virtual-reality aspect of the documentary allows it to be more impactful than comparable films.

“It’s like it’s magic,” Guy said. “Number one: you’re there. Number two: the people who are talking don’t know you’re there. So, they’re being entirely themselves and not sugar-coating or using coded language to protect our feelings about a thing that we shouldn’t have our feelings protected about. If I’m speaking for white people who are seeing the exhibit, anyway.” 

Courtland Cox, one of the interviewees in “Traveling While Black” and a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spoke about traveling at the height of Jim Crow laws without the “sugar-coating” Guy referenced.

“I knew enough to pack a lunch before I got on that bus,” Cox said about a 10-hour trip from Albany, Georgia to Jackson, Mississippi he took in the early 1960s.

Ben’s Chili Bowl lights up for the night in Washington, D.C. The restaurant has represented open arms and hospitality for African-Americans traveling the country since “The Green Book” (a guide to avoiding dangerous situations based in racism) was first published in 1936. It serves as the set behind “Traveling While Black,” a virtual-reality documentary exhibit at Broadway Theater through Dec. 31, 2019. (Photo Courtesy: Barb Guy)

“It was really tough trying to not only deal with the question of where you’re going to go to the bathroom, where you’re going to go eat, but if you exercised your right under the law — whether somebody was going to come up there and try to assault you,” he said. “That was a reality that we wanted to change.”

The older stories behind “Traveling While Black” might be new to modern audiences, but the recent stories are painfully familiar to some. 

“Some of the comment cards will just rip your heart out,” said Guy, regarding the film’s comment cards that are available for all who experience the exhibit and are displayed on a board just outside the set.

“There’s one that just begins ‘Dear Ms. Rice,’ Guy said.

This comment was in reference to Samaria Rice, another interviewee in the film and mother to late Tamir Rice who was shot and killed by police Nov. 22, 2014.

“And that one — I mean, wow, we have to figure out a way to get that to her,” she said. 

This virtual-reality experience goes above and beyond communicating a large, heavy topic in just 20 minutes. it puts viewers in the scene, right next to the storytellers.

“Traveling While Black” is available on-demand at the Broadway Theater for free, every day through Dec. 31, 2019, from noon to 9 p.m.

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Marisa Cooper is a senior communication major with a psychology minor. She hopes to find a career path within public relations or journalism with time for a mindful work/life balance. As of late, she’s been exploring passions for embroidery, hiking, house plants and podcasts. Marisa is thrilled to take on the role of managing editor this year.

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