"This isn't real," I have to remind myself.
I'm sitting in a booth. A few feet away from me, three young girls are chatting and munching on potato chips. We've stepped back in time to the Jim Crow era, when black people were restricted from restaurants, hotels, shops and gas stations across the US. Only places listed in the Green Book, a guide for traveling African Americans, were welcoming. One of those places was here: Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, DC.
I'm transported here via an Oculus Go headset and a 20-minute virtual reality documentary called Traveling While Black. The film, nominated for a 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program, explores the restrictions African Americans faced and continue to deal with today. The film weaves through the past and present using archival imagery and modern-day footage of violence against unarmed black people. Men and women share their experiences dealing with segregation, discrimination and violence, and it feels as if you're sitting right in front of them.
The film plays with time and space to tell the story. In one scene, for example, a man discusses the dangers of traveling as a black person. We're seated in a booth at Ben's Chili Bowl, but when I look to my left, I see a reflection of the man as a young boy. He's looking out the window of a bus, staring at rolling green fields. Suddenly the scene shifts and I, too, am transported back in time to that bus. I can feel every bump in the road.
Director Roger Ross Williams says he chose to tell this story using VR because of its ability to create greater empathy. When viewers have a headset on, they can't really escape the story, he says. They're totally immersed and can't look down at their phones or turn away.
"As black people in America, we can't escape the history and we can't escape how we're treated in this country," Williams said. "We can't escape racism. So I thought, in a VR environment, the viewer -- whether you're black or white -- you can't escape the reality of the conversation going on and the experience of the piece and what it's like to be black."
VR studio Felix and Paul produced the film, in partnership with The New York Times. It's available on Oculus Rift,
and Gear VR. Using the latest generation of VR camera, filmmakers were able to get as close as they did to subjects, placing the equipment right in the booth next to people sharing their stories. This allows viewers to feel like they're part of the conversation, says Paul Raphael, co-founder of Felix and Paul.
Raphael says VR can be a powerful new way to share these kinds of experiences.
"The stories in this piece aren't news to anyone, but it will probably be the first time they hear them told that way," he said. "There's an opportunity here to impact people in a fundamentally more profound way."
I felt incredibly moved after watching the film in VR. The technology allowed me to more directly connect with people sharing their deeply personal experiences. The pain in the voice of Tamir Rice's mom as she discussed the killing of her son was palpable. I could feel the optimism in one man's voice as he discussed his hopes for the next generation of black men and women to be able to dream big without restrictions.
The second I put on the headset and the music started, I felt lifted from my desk and placed in the theater where the film begins. As we moved from the rainy streets outside Ben's Chili Bowl to booths within the lively restaurant, I was part of the experiences and conversations of the people around me. It's much easier to empathize when you feel like you're actually there. That's something you can't really get from two-dimensional film.
One of the goals of Traveling While Black, Williams says, is to let people be part of a conversation they may not normally engage in.
"You get to be in this black space and experience that pain in a different way as a nonblack person," he says. "I hope that it continues the conversation around race in America."
Originally published Sept. 21.