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Traveling While Black – A Virtual Reality View of Overcoming Adversity

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February 24, 2022

Back in 2010, a play titled “The Green Book” told the story of what it was like to travel across the United States as an African American. The play was based off of the “Negro Motorist Green Book” which informed African Americans where it was safe for them to travel to and through, and where to stay away from. The play inspired the recent virtual reality film “Traveling While Black” which gives viewers an immersive experience to hear stories of what it was like to travel in the U.S. in the Jim Crow era of the 1930s-1960s. The film was directed by Roger Ross Williams, an American Director, and produced by Canadian production company Felix & Paul Studios. The film was recently brought to the McLean Community Center in Virginia for Black History Month, allowing participants to use virtual reality headsets in a live mockup of a Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant. We were able to talk with Producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz on the experience of putting together the film and the stories the film told. Below is our Q&A with her.

Q&A with Producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz

What drew you to this project?

In 2010, I produced a play at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC called “The Green Book.” The Negro Motorist Green Book (aka The Green Book) was unknown to many at that time. It was a travel guide for black Americans published during Jim Crow and had fallen through the cracks of history. When the play opened, it created a sensation.  It became clear that it was a story that needed to be told.

Why do you think the story needed to be told in a virtual reality setting?

The “rediscovery” of the Green Book began a tidal wave of productions, books and documentary films produced about The Green Book. We wanted to provide an immersive experience where an audience could experience what it was like to time travel back in history and feel the humiliation, the frustration, and the terror of trying to move freely in society, and then to go forward to find – that in some ways – things haven’t changed.  Virtual Reality provides that experience on a personal basis.

As a Canadian production company working with an American director on a film shot in the U.S., what makes this story relevant to a North American audience? Can you talk a bit about how it was to collaborate across the border?

The U.S. is not alone in experiencing racism and bigotry in our daily lives. It happens throughout the world which accounts for the wide appeal of the Traveling While Black across borders and throughout the world. We joined with Felix and Paul Studios in Montreal—one of the world’s recognized leaders in VR—to tell this story using virtual reality. After months of on-line collaboration, the choice to shoot the film at Ben’s Chili Bowl brought us together at last. The community setting of Ben’s was so powerful, we recognized the need to create a replica of the diner where viewers could watch the film and have a conversation around their own stories.

The film was released in 2019. How have significant events, such as the BLM protests in 2020, since the release impacted your reflections on the film?

During the appearance of Travelling While Black at the Sundance Festival in 2018, we were at the beginning of a wave of protests, activism, and violence that would increase over the next 3 years. The interest in bringing Traveling While Black to local communities, universities and public spaces began to grow. We are playing a significant role not only in opening discussion within these communities but in inviting audiences to tell their own stories and to foster empathy and understanding in the process. 

Are there any stories that weren’t included in the film that you think would be interesting to tell?

There were so many stories we had collected over the years that we wanted to tell. One of my favorites is this one about Darryl Hill:

“The year was 1963. A young college athlete made history by becoming the first African-American on the University of Maryland football team and in the Atlantic Coast Conference. His name was Darryl Hill.

Darryl Hill’s story is one of breaking barriers in 1960’s Jim Crow America, a world that once refused even to allow Hill’s mother entrance into the segregated stadium to watch her son gain the title of “the Jackie Robinson of College Football.”

From the start, Darryl found himself under the protective wing of Jerry Fishman, a tough linebacker from Connecticut who had a penchant for violence on the field and a no-nonsense attitude toward any form of racism off it. As a Jew, Fishman had seen his share of anti-Semitism, and was determined to prevent the mindless taunts of the thugs from getting to Darryl. Any player or fan who went after Hill immediately had the wrath of Fishman to contend with. “People weren’t ashamed to call you a Jew or use the ‘n’ word,” Fishman said. “And people didn’t bat an eye if they heard it.” As Daryl Hill and Jerry Fishman traveled through the south– the only Jew and the only Black on the University of Maryland team, they called themselves “The Onlys–”

As Darryl and “Fish” traveled from game to game throughout the South, numerous death threats were leveled at them. The first time Hill went to play an away-game at Clemson University, he was hung in effigy from the goalpost before the game. Crosses were burned outside the stadium the night before the game.”