A still from Roger Ross Williams' "Traveling While Black"
A still from Roger Ross Williams' "Traveling While Black"

When Frank Smith was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta during the civil rights era, he often drove across the south to take part in various rallies and campaigns. Of course, traveling meant risking bloodshed—or sometimes even death—every time he stopped for gas.

For decades, conditions were terrible for African Americans traveling along interstate highways—especially in the south. But it got a little easier once author Victor Green published The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936, which served as a guide for people of color to find safe places to get food, gas, and housing as they traveled.

“In those days we had to travel between Georgia and Washington, D.C. on U.S. 29 and we couldn’t stop for gas without worrying about getting killed,” recalls Smith, a former D.C. Councilmember and civil rights leader. Smith is one of a number of people featured in a new documentary, Traveling While Black, that takes a look at race relations in the U.S.

The film, which is debuting on Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, features several local civil rights veterans, including the late social activist and politician Julian Bond, who cameoed as Victor Green in a play about his Green Book at The Lincoln Theatre in 2010. But Traveling While Black isn’t your typical documentary. For starters, it was shot almost entirely in Ben’s Chili Bowl, with its interview subjects seated in the venerable restaurant’s famed booths, discussing their experiences with segregation and race relations in America. But most notably, Traveling While Black is a fully immersive 360-degree virtual 3D journey of what it was like to live as an African American during the height of racial oppression in the U.S. Viewers don’t just hear about how things were back then; they’re actually transported to a 1950s recreation of Ben’s.

“We really try to give people an experience so that they would recognize the fact that things have not changed,” says Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, who serves as executive producer of Traveling While Black. The film was directed by Roger Ross Williams, who was the first African American to win an Academy Award as a director, and co-directed by Ayesha Nadarajah.

Traveling While Black immerses viewers in a time when African Americans feared traveling, eating, and staying in certain venues because their world was segregated and dominated by whites who used Jim Crow laws to stoke racial fear. In a filmed interview, Williams says the film “gets you thinking [about] how far we have come.”

Williams collaborated with Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, whose company Felix & Paul Studios developed the virtual reality aspect of the film. Schwartz says she will be building a set in Park City to promote the film that will be nearly identical to a booth in Ben’s Chili Bowl.

“It is an honor and privilege to retell the history of Black Washington during the civil rights struggle,” says Kamal Ali, the son of Ben Chili Bowl’s founders Ben and Virginia Ali. “U Street was the Mecca of Black Society and even today it is a safe haven for all people.” 

Bens Chili Bowl owner and founder Virginia Ali with “Traveling While Black” director Roger Ross Williams.s Chili Bowl owner and founder Virginia Ali with “Traveling While Black” director Roger Ross Williams. Credit: Via Bonnie Nelson Schwartz

Since Ben’s opened in 1958, the famed restaurant has been a landmark and magnet for many American icons. But it’s not just Ben’s that has a rich history: the block it sits on—the 1200 block of U Street NW—was the epicenter of D.C.’s Black Broadway in the first half of the 20th century. And many of the former establishments on that block featured prominently in Green’s Green Book, including the space that Ben’s now occupies, which used to be a pool hall. 

The idea for Traveling While Black began in 2010 when Schwartz premiered her play, The Green Book, at the Lincoln Theatre, situated next door to Ben’s. It featured Bond reading parts of the book as Victor Green and gained a wave of national attention and praise—including from Williams, fresh off his Academy Award win for his 2009 short documentary Music By Prudence. Soon after, he connected with Schwartz to help develop Traveling While Black.

The film’s Sundance debut in a few weeks isn’t the only opportunity for people to experience the full, immersive version of Traveling While Black. Following its debut, the film will embark on a nationwide tour of civil and human rights museums, according to Blackfilm. (A full schedule of the film’s tour and locations hasn’t yet been announced).

The exhibition that accompanies the film will gather multi-generational experiences and contemporary stories of “traveling while black,” in order to highlight the urgent need to remember the past, build critical empathy, and facilitate a dialogue about the challenges minority travelers still face in contemporary society.

Rev. Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale, a longtime D.C. historian and the founder and president of DC Legendary Musicians, recalls the time she spent working as a hair stylist for James Brown, which required frequent travel.

“You have no idea what black people went through. There was a great deal of discrimination,” she says. “One night we were driving in North Carolina and got lost and group of men told us to go the wrong way straight into the woods and when [we] came out they were laughing, but we could have been killed.”

Butler-Truesdale is featured in the film, discussing the segregated history of D.C.—like how African-Americans were prohibited from shopping at upscale department stores such as Garfinckel’s. Schwartz says she hopes the film will not just inform people of a dark history in America’s path, but teach them what to do when confronted with prejudice behavior.

“We want to create empathy and understanding to give people an experience for themselves that will inspire them to do something,” she says. “We need to build a dialogue in the community.”

You can find more information about Traveling While Black here