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SALT LAKE CITY — Many Utahns were recently treated an award-winning advanced technology film experience aimed at giving visitors a firsthand look into what blacks went through as they traveled the country hoping to find safe refuge in locales that might otherwise be less than welcoming to people of color.
The Salt Lake Film Society hosted an exhibit called “Traveling While Black” at the Broadway Cinema Centre in downtown Salt Lake City.
The exhibit offered “a cinematic virtual reality experience that immerses the viewer in the long history of restriction of movement for black Americans and the creation of safe spaces” in predominantly African American communities, according to the society’s website.
Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams, along with Emmy-winning Felix & Paul Studios, transported participants to Ben’s Chili Bowl — a landmark eatery in Washington, D.C., where black motorists would frequent on their travels. The diner was one of the places listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book — an annual guide published during the Jim Crow-era by New York City postal worker Victor Hugo Green.
The book was featured in the 2018 Academy Award-winning film “Green Book,” which was about the challenges faced by African Americans who trekked across highways in their cars throughout the United States.
Using virtual reality technology, viewers shared a series of intimate moments with various patrons “as they reflect on their experiences of restricted movement and race relations in the U.S., confronting the way we understand and talk about race in America.” The free, on-demand exhibit was set up in the lobby of the Broadway and was designed to resemble a seating area in the historic diner depicted in the film.
Kaysville resident Joseph Adams, 43, took in the exhibit on his lunch break. He said the use of the virtual reality technology helped make the overall experience much more profound for him.
“The impact it had on me was so much greater using this technology than it probably otherwise would have been,” he said. “As a white man growing up in Utah, it’s an insular community that’s very white, and to all of a sudden be in that booth surrounded by only African Americans — it was startling and it kind of brought it home in a way that I don’t know you could do otherwise.”
He had expected a more documentary-type experience but instead was moved by the firsthand stories conveyed in the film by people who lived them.
“Going into it with preconceived notions about what it was going to be, and then having it be what it was and learning (the truth),” he explained. “They use this technology to make the point that what was happening back then may be different than what’s happening now, but it’s still a narrative thread that’s continuing.
As a white man growing up in Utah, it’s an insular community that’s very white, and to all of a sudden be in that booth surrounded by only African Americans — it was startling and it kind of brought it home in a way that I don’t know you could do otherwise.
“We haven’t gotten necessarily even close to where I think we’re supposed to be as a society and as a human race. There’s a lot of work left to do,” he said.
Darin Goff, 53, of Cottonwood Heights, noted that the virtual reality experience put him in a position he had never previously encountered in his life.
“I intellectually can grasp it in a way, but understanding it emotionally is a much more difficult process, and grasping just how different the American experience is for other people is often a struggle for people in my situation,” he said.
“It’s really almost impossible for me to relate to it because it isn’t the world that I have the privilege of experiencing. It’s a pretty harsh reality for a substantial number of Americans, and we need to be reminded of it all the time because we as a society have not finished (addressing) this.”
Goff added, “I’m intellectually aware of fact that I live in a different America, but I think it doesn’t hurt to be constantly reminded that these problems still exist. I think that for some people that would be probably something fairly new to them, but it shouldn’t be.”
For Salt Laker Brayden Lopez, 24, the use of VR technology really enriched his ability to connect with the film’s subject matter.
“Being a person of color and someone that is into the newest tech, it almost felt like it was a movie made for me — something I couldn’t miss out on,” he said.
“It was like I was sitting down with my grandma or a friend and they were just telling me their experiences. The VR aspect of it is such a powerful tool. For me, it invoked stronger emotions than if I were to just watch it in the movie theater.” he said.
Toward the end of film, one of the final conversations was with Samaria Rice, whose 12-year old son Tamir was shot and killed by Cleveland police when he was mistaken for a gunman while in a local playground.
“I pulled in a lot more information than I think would have been possible with traditional film. I was able to watch Samaria Rice fidget with a tissue paper during more difficult times of the interview and wipe her tears away as she was trying to explain,” Lopez said. “Then I could look past her and see everyone in the restaurant make little head nods and wipe away their tears.”
As for the actual content of the experience, Lopez noted that he’d seen some similar things, including Rice talk about the day she lost her son as well as interviews with older black people talking about their experiences growing up in white America.
“With the VR aspect, you get a real sense of pain when people speak and it’s something that you can’t really forget,” he said.
Christine Ishmael, 50, of Eagle Mountain, brought her teenage daughters to experience the exhibit. She said a quote from “Traveling While Black” that really stuck with her was. “I wonder, when does it end?”
“My thoughts as a white mother of mixed race children as I watched was, “How does this affect my children? I want to do my part to make this world a better and safer place for my children,” she explained.
“We each play a part in this world, and even though we may not feel that our tiny part is impactful, (we can) slowly chip away at the old intolerant ways of thinking,” Ishmael said. “We will want more and expect more of humanity and we will be more intolerant of those who believe that they are superior to others because of the color of their skin. I believe it can end with each one of us, right here, right now, as we commit to change the way we think.”
Salt Lake resident Mark Christensen said the message of the film resonated in a very meaningful way.
“This documentary is a reminder of the harm and trauma of racist discrimination that continues in our country, and the importance of building an equitable and just society for everyone,” he said. “It has helped me build more empathy and awareness, so that I can better speak up against biases.”