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Case study: Traveling While Black

We look at a VR documentary project which maps and recreates the experience of being black in America.
© University of Sheffield

Virtual reality headsets hold opportunities for many playful and enjoyable experiences, but also to put forward serious virtual content for users. In recent years we have seen such interactive technologies used to tour the Anne Frank House, documentaries about women in VR – such as Oculus’ series of VR interviews titled ‘Celebrating Women in VR’ – and a groundbreaking immersive documentary on racism in the USA titled Traveling While Black (2019).

This 20-minute documentary, directed by Roger Ross Williams, places us as a silent participant in discussions and dialogue about the history of racism in America. The documentary is mainly filmed inside Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous diner in Washington D.C. that has been a hub for Black communities since the 1950s.

We hear the lived experiences and memories from people about the use of the green book, segregated seating on buses, police attacks, and at the conclusion of the documentary, we hear from Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, a child who was murdered by police in 2014.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Virtual reality makes the experience of watching people’s conversations and recollections unique in a number of emotive and effective ways. Through this medium, writers and readers can be transformed into active participants, capable of intervening and transforming the stories in which they are immersed. In other words, we’re seeing an age of new technologies that provide facilities to communicate in new and interactive ways.

Filmmaker and researcher Kath Dooley argues that the differences in VR as a medium change the impact of seeing a documentary in its users: involving us in the experiences we are being told about, because we don’t see a “frame” around the screen in the same way that we do for two-dimensional documentaries.

She writes:

“Unlike traditional screen media, the narrative experience offered in the CVR [cinematic VR] format is not confined within a rectangular screen. As such there are no ‘close ups’ or ‘long shots’ in the sense of traditional filmmaking, and established notions of screen grammar are challenged” (Dooley 2020, p. 81).
You can see a trailer for Traveling While Black above, along with commentary from the director. In it, Williams reflects on the potential of VR narrative, and he also emphasises the ways that VR can create an emotional connection to the content, removing distance between the viewer (or experiencer) and the filmed content:
“In VR, the level of connection you have to a story can be profound. It’s real and tangible. You are forced to a place of deep empathy […] You are forced to think about other people in a way that 2D can’t accomplish.”

Interestingly, Traveling While Black starts with the experiencer sitting in a cinema, and the curtains opening on a cinema screen in front of them, which in a way highlights the differences between this experience and a cinematic film viewing. Unlike a cinema, it is not just the virtual cinema ‘screen’ you see in front of you that is interesting. Rather, the whole building, with its plush red seats, is part of the spectacle, which you can choose to explore by turning to look in different directions, or choose to ignore, while focusing on the screen ahead.

The experiencer is then transported to the street outside the cinema for a few moments, then into Ben’s Chili Bowl, which is next door to the cinema. In both cases, the experiencer has freedom to look around and notice details that are not mentioned or highlighted, but exist silently in that world, and hint to a cultural mood surrounding the testimonies we hear.

For example, when we first enter Ben’s Chili Bowl, and hear one of the original owners of the diner, Virginia Ali, talking about her childhood, we can turn to look away from her, and notice some ‘MAGA’ graffiti (‘Make America Great Again’ – a popular slogan of Donald Trump supporters during his presidency). This locates the filming in a particular cultural moment in US contemporary politics, and implicitly relates her memories of around 80 years ago with the clear racial prejudices and social divides in present-day America.

As people in the documentary talk, we sit with them in a booth in the diner. We are metaphorically and virtually given a space at the table to hear these narratives, which we might otherwise have no access to. We get to hear the types of personal narratives around racist incidents that don’t make it into official media reports.

Most powerfully, at the end, all the participants are sitting in the diner around Samaria Rice, while she tells us about the dilemma she experience on the day her son was killed, of having to choose between going with Tamir in the ambulance or staying with her two children, who were surrounded by police, in a public space.

We see other people’s emotional responses to Samaria’s words, and are brought, through this virtual proximity, to a deep emotional connection to her story. We are given the challenge and the opportunity to hear directly about the lives, and the struggles, of Black people living in a systemically racist world.

Such an experience will likely speak to people in different ways, depending on how familiar or unfamiliar they are with these histories, and these emotions. For Williams, the director, the end goal and purpose of a virtual experience like this is that “the viewers walk away wanting to do something. They want action.” This highlights the potential power of virtual reality to challenge and change reality itself, push against inequality, and work towards a more socially just world for all.

Aneesh Barai

References

  • Dooley, K. (2020). “A question of proximity: exploring a new screen grammar for 360-degree cinematic virtual reality.” Media Practice and Education, 21(2), 81-96.
  • Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge.
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