Updated: May 31
Directed by: #RogerRossWilliams
With the backdrop of the tragic death of George Floyd, Academy award winner Roger Ross Williams’s 2019 VR documentary film provides a unique and confrontational journey into the lives of those who have experienced, and continue to experience the racial prejudice still rife in the United States of America.
Traveling While Black initially greets the viewer with the familiar and friendly setting of the cinema, where the silver screen presents you with footage of a segregated America of years gone by, with a narrator explaining the premise of the now out-of-print Green Book, a documentation of safe havens for the black community during the era of Jim Crow. However, the setting gradually changes from the cinema to an empty street corner lit by a diner, Ben’s Chili Bowl. This diner is our setting for the documentary, and an important landmark that continues its legacy as a safe place for the Black community of Washington DC to this day.
No longer are we presented with the past as footage, but rather we are placed within the conversation, hearing the stories of those who suffered through the Jim Crow era of American history and used the diners across America, like Ben’s Chili Bowl, or threats, bars, and social spaces that the Green Book listed for safety. Traveling While Black is less of a documentary film and more of an immersive experience which confronts the viewer with the painful aspects of the past, with the ever-present spectre of this discrimination continuing to this day.
This goal of presenting the viewer with the truth that the black experience in America has not changed from that of the Jim Crow era is done in a masterful way, beginning with subtle images paralleling the current lives of the community which uses Ben’s Chili bowl to that of the past. A scene in which we hear from Virginia Ali, former owner of the Chili Bowl, begins with her narration over the past, but then takes us to her interview in the present discussing the day to day life of the dinner at that time. However, the two scenes become one, with the past being played in a mirror behind her, reflecting that present that we live in is not all that different from the world left behind.
Although a painful journey, Traveling While Black does highlight the love that the community in Washington, and across the United States, shares with the diner, always being busy with patrons as we listen in on their lives. The sound design is of particular importance as the use of music throughout is crucial, with a soft piano piece playing over footage of violence, rioting and discrimination, but in the diner we are greeted by the sounds of people's lives that surround us. When experiencing this, I felt a sense of emotion that, as a white viewer, was important to experience. The stark contrast between the violence experienced by those such as Rodney King, footage of which we are presented with, and the daily lives of those in the diner provides an ever-present tense that each of their lives has been affected by this discrimination. A particular scene where Courtland Cox, a peaceful protester in the Civil Rights movement, discusses how the actions of Rosa Parks and others has allowed the youth of the Black community to be able to “dream bigger” is a tipping point in the film, as he states this to a young boy bringing together the pain of the past with the potential of the future.
Williams leads us with the use of VR technology to this present and confronts us with the painful truth that this dream has turned into a nightmare for the community, as phrased by Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy shot by Cleveland Police in 2014. In this scene we are again front and centre through VR as Samaria recounts the day her son was taken from her, surrounded by the community of the Chili Bowl. This is the crescendo of emotion that the film has been building towards and it is a hard scene to bear, as unlike the others, which have the hustle and bustle of life within the diner, we are all silent to hear this mother’s pain. It is the climax of the journey of which we have been invited into by Williams, and we are again returned to the cinema to watch the footage of Tamir being shot within seconds of police arriving at the scene. We are presented the footage in the same manner as the past footage, to challenge the narrative of change within the USA.
We are finally presented with the words of Victor Hugo Green, writer of The Green Book, that this catalogue of safe havens for the black community would be out-of-print once equality has been achieved. We watch on from our safe cinema in a world where The Green Book is now out-of-print, but with the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer at the front of your mind. Williams’s film experience is a eulogy for all those killed, discriminated against and segregated within the United States, and confronts the truth that this racism has never changed.