He is magnificent in his perpetual movement to disrupt. Tall, ebony hue with long locks — Roger Ross Williams —the award-winning director, producer and writer first upset the proverbial “apple cart” when he won an Academy Award® for his short film “Music By Prudence” earning a place in the history books as the first African American director to earn that distinction.
His win was important and it made a significant crack in the wall that has divided the Hollywood creative community for decades. Hollywood has traditionally been guarded by White men whose lack of generosity and inclusion is so blatant it took the outcry of a fearless, younger generation to call the old guard on the carpet for their legacy of bigotry and exclusion.
Williams is a force. He was recently named by Variety to the New York Power List and described as a ‘digitally savvy, entrepreneurial trailblazer’ in the entertainment industry. True, but Willaims is so much more than that.
He embraced new opportunities and in 2016, his film “Life Animated” was nominated for an Academy Award ® and went on to win three Emmys, including the award for Best Documentary (2018). He also directed “God Loves Uganda,” which was shortlisted for an Academy Award ®. Keeping the pendulum swinging in the right direction he directed the documentary “American Jail” which examined the U.S. prison system. It premiered on CNN in 2018.
Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, Willilams is currently editing the documentary feature about Harlem’s legendary Apollo theater, a series that will appear on Netflix and is preparing his first narrative feature film for Amazon Studios.
Since 2016, he has been on the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences and serves as the chair of both the Documentary Branch and the Diversity Committee. Williams also serves on the Academy’s Education and Outreach committee as well as the A20/20 diversity initiative. The gifted storyteller is also on the Alumni Advisory Board of the Sundance Institute, the Advisory Board of Full Frame Festival, and is on the board of the Tribeca Film Institute, where he serves as chair of the festival’s programming committee. Keeping his African roots close to his heart, he serves on the board of Docubox Kenya, a documentary fund and mentorship program based in Nairobi that supports African filmmakers, and the board of None on Record, a Kenya-based organization that provides media training for the African LGBT community. Williams is also on the Board of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the first major museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary art based in Cape Town, South Africa.
We caught up to Williams to discuss his newest project — “Traveling While Black” (TWB) a new virtual reality experience and exhibition that will premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival New Frontier exhibition (January 24, 2019, through February 3, 2019) in Park City, Utah. The project is in partnership with the New York Times Op-Docs and is co-produced by Felix & Paul Studios and “Traveling While Black,” Inc. in collaboration with Facebook’s Oculus.
Directed by Williams in collaboration with Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël and co-directed by Ayesha Nadarajah, the 20-minute 3D, 360-degree virtual reality documentary immerses the viewer in the long history of the restricted movement for black Americans and the creation of safe spaces in our communities.
Visitors enter a re-creation of a historic « safe space »—Ben’s Chili Bowl and through the VR experience, the world of Ben’s Chili Bowl and the stories of black travelers who sought refuge during segregation come alive.
The “Traveling While Black” (TWB) appearance at the Sundance Festival will launch a nation-wide tour of the Traveling While Black Exhibition slated to tour civil and human rights museums throughout the country. Through the VR exhibition, the museum-goers will experience a deeper understanding of what segregation was like historically in today’s world of “stop and frisk.” The TWB exhibition will gather multi-generational experiences and contemporary stories of “traveling while black” highlighting the urgent need to remember this past, build critical empathy, and facilitate a dialogue about the challenges minority travelers still face today
Here is an edited conversation with the award-winning storyteller Roger Ross Williams, as we discuss race, Hollywood and surviving Trump’s America.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: ‘Traveling While Black’ (TWB) is causing a buzz around the Sundance Festival. Can you tell me more about this?
ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: I developed the project at the Sundance Film Festival and they continued to support the project with a new frontier grant that enabled me to explore virtual reality which is a new medium, for everyone. As a traditional documentary filmmaker [VR] was a completely new thing for me. So it enabled me to take some years and look at a lot of VR and talk with a lot of VR artists and figure out how I wanted to tell the story.
LAS: Covering film festivals over the years, I’ve seen a lot of VR about “us” but not made by “us.”
RRW: I’m so glad that you said that. For me, that’s a big issue and it leans into the work that I am trying to do as Governor of the documentary branch f the Academy [of Motion Pictures] is to make sure that our stories are told by us and that we are given the resources and training to people of color, so that, we can tell our own stories.
It 2019. It can’t be that the stories of African Americans, people of color are mostly told by White filmmakers. For me, that’s why when I see a Hollywood titled film like “Greenbook” that has little to nothing to do with the “green book” and is done by a White filmmaker, I get upset about that, and I think, is this is still going on in 2019?
LAS: In your words, what is TWB really about?
RRW: ‘TRAVELING WHILE BLACK’ (TWB) is about the contributions and struggles of African Americans in a different time period when people thought [the danger] was over the in the ’50s and ’60. People don’t know this part of history that we could not travel freely through the South and some parts of the North, as well. We had to use this guidebook to know where we could eat and sleep when we were on the road. As Black people, we could not get gas [at certain] gas stations. There were “sundown” towns in the north and the south. This is a part of history that people forgot and the contributions made by Victor Green [the creator of the GreenBook] is so important.
LAS: What did you discover about Victor Green in your research?
RRW: It’s interesting that Victor Green was a Postal worker, in Harlem, because the green book came out of his connection to the African American community. For me, what this VR project is about is identifying and bringing audiences into Black safe places. Where it was safe for Black people to be themselves. To experience community and to feel safe because when they were out on the road, they were not safe.
LAS: Great points. I hear something fun playing in the background, are you editing?
RRW: (laughing) Yes, I am. It’s the doc series on the Apollo theater. I was interviewing Patti Labelle and she’s talking about being on the road and her exact quote is: ‘I’m singing better than half these White girls, out here but I’m sleeping in my car, in the bus because I couldn’t stay at the hotels.”
The struggle for Black entertainers at that time was huge. It was difficult and people don’t realize that. People don’t realize the struggles that Patti had to go through and how they paved the way for artists today.
LAS: Sadly there are still pockets in America that are still not safe.
RRW: I know it was important for me, to point out in this VR piece, is that today Black people are in danger when they step out of their front door. How many stories do we have to hear about people whether it’s Skip Gates, or Ving Rhames, on their own property under threat! Tamir Rice went across the street to a playground and was killed! What is important to me, is to point out that things haven’t changed that much since the 1950s and early 60’s in America for Black people on the road. They are still hunted and shot. Whether ’s Trevor Martin going to the store in his own neighborhood or someone driving on the road pulled over and shot by the cops, so this is a crisis in America. I don’t want to re-traumatize people but I want people to understand this situation exists.
LAS: What do you want people to take away from the immersive experience?
RRW: That we need to be aware. It needs to change. We need to have a conversation. I hope that it sparks a conversation from the people that see it. Part of the thing that was important to be around the VR is that when you come out of the exhibit that you have a place to deposit your own feelings, your own emotions, and your own experiences. That’s really important. That it’s about not just walking away from this exhibit but actually have a conversation about how it makes you feel and about the [actual] situation.
LAS: In my own experience, I’ve been targeted and harassed for no reason but being an Afro-Latina woman in Harlem.
RRW: Those micro-aggressions happen to most of us. That’s the reality of the situation and our lives in America. I don’t know if most white people are aware of that but I think we don’t talk about it enough and we don’t know how situations can escalate. They could call the cops … and you know how they can be. They shoot first and ask questions later.
LAS: I must confess, my grandmother’s words floated in my head on how to talk to white people.
RRW: I’m glad you said that. When I was working on this project and working with all the white collaborators with me, I told them that we carry the history of what happened to Black people in America with us all the time. So, you see the fear in us, when we are reacting to these situations it’s because we’ve heard stories from our grandparents, and our parents, and we are carrying all this history with us.
How many times have Black people been pulled over by the cops and you know, you don’t make any sudden moves, you keep your hands on the dashboard. You become very careful. We have seen way too many videos of cops just shooting into cars and killing Black people and I wanted to connect that in ‘TRAVELING WHILE BLACK’ (TWB)so you see that, you experience that. In this viral video world we are confronted with this on social media but what are we doing about it?
LAS: Preach. I feel more helpless, now then I did 15 years ago.
RRW: Well, we’re more helpless now because we’re living in Trump’s America where these racists feel they have an open license on Black people. There are so many videos of racists just speaking their minds and screaming at a Black person, or a person of color. It’s so crazy. TWB is so needed now, in the time of Trump more than anything. We are living in a very challenging and difficult time to be a person of color in America. We need to figure out how we are going to deal with this. We need to educate people about our own experiences and our history, and we need to have an open dialogue about our situation in this country.
LAS: How does VR fit into storytelling when approaching such a serious subject as race in America?
RRW: VR is a great tool for helping people to empathize and to understand it in a way that’s truly immersive and that’s why I wanted to work in this medium. And it’s very exciting, and I think VR is in its infancy and there is more ahead for VR than we can even imagine. It’s exciting for me, as an artist to be on the fringes with things that challenge me creatively. And that is what keeps things fresh and exciting.
LAS: Personally, allow me to add, Roger, that I feel very safe knowing you are in this industry. Thank you for looking out for folks of color.
RRW: Thank you. When I was elected Governor on the Board of Governors, there was a period of shock. I could not believe that I had a seat at the table. And I thought, ok, I have a seat at the table and I am going to use it to open the door for other people like me. That has been my clear objective from the beginning and I’ve worked so hard to do that. I’m not going to waste any second. I’m going to continue trying to make a difference for people like me. That’s really important, to me.
As Black people, we are great storytellers. We should be telling our stories. No one tells a story better than us!