Sundance report: An Arthur Ashe virtual reality experience makes his historic 1968 victory real
The director also creates a virtual alternative to the controversial ‘Green Book’
There are no more excuses — if you want to know what racism or discrimination feels like, you can quite literally put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Racism feels as rampant now, as Colin Kaepernick continues to raise his voice in the name of social injustice, as it was in 1968 when Arthur Ashe was competing for a US Open title. The two are inextricably linked in a new, gripping, virtually realistic documentary short that places you in the space of what all is going on as Ashe was on his way to becoming an athletic and civil rights legend.
In Ashe ’68, directed by Brad Lichtenstein and produced by John Legend and his producing partner Mike Jackson, we are transported to perhaps the most turbulent year in modern American history. In the eight-minute piece, viewers are inside the intimate moments right before Ashe’s victory, a match that changed the course of sports history. Viewers — experiencers? — learn about and can see and feel the internal pressures Ashe felt walking the hallowed halls of an all-white tennis club. They are privy to the emotional aftermath of his win.
“I think for white people, or nonblack people, they’re like … ‘I never have had the opportunity to be in a black space, surrounded by black people, and be part of that conversation because of the color of my skin. That’s always been a barrier,’ ” said director Roger Ross Williams. “That was eye-opening for them.”
Williams, who nabbed an Oscar for his 2010 documentary short Music by Prudence, put together a gripping 22-minute virtual reality experience called Traveling While Black that’s also being experienced at this year’s Sundance. Traveling places its viewer at a counter inside Washington, D.C.’s, Ben’s Chili Bowl — a longtime safe space for black folks. It was the place where — the case is made in this piece, which is experienced by putting on VR goggles and a headset — young black men could gather and watch basketball on the TVs the diner eventually installed. There’s also a gripping sit-down interview with Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, who reveals that she had her son’s body cremated so that when she eventually leaves Ohio, she can take him with her. As she says, she was not done raising him.
“This is what the real Green Book was about, not the Hollywood version,” Williams said. “It’s unfortunate that … that movie is called the Green Book, because this is our story to tell, as black people, and we don’t get to tell our own stories. … I’m happy to release this so people can actually understand what the real Green Book was about and experience it in a different way. It’s like the alternate to the Hollywood movie version.”