Thanks to VR I’ve had my hands turn into claws, paws, hooks, swords and guns, but none of these transformations were half as striking as a simple change in color. In Derek Ham’s I Am A Man, the viewer not only time travels back to the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in 1968, but also into the shoes of an African American during the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike and the events that lead up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. In doing so, non-black people have a rare opportunity to see the world through a different pair of eyes, while black people will find a just-as-powerful account of a transformative time for the world.
Ham, an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the North Carolina State College of Design, told me he’d been interested in telling a Civil Rights story when he discovered Oculus’ Launch Pad program, which funded the piece last year. “Serendipitously I learned that 2018 would be the 50th anniversary of both the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike and the assassination of Dr. King,” he says. “The timing could not be any more perfect to tell this story in VR.”
I Am A Man, then, consists of a collection of scenes from the days surrounding King’s murder, giving you a taste of life in the build-up to and the horror of the tragic event. It’s rightly unassuming and avoids preaching, letting the tone and events of the time speak for themselves. As you stand in a kitchen, for example, a news broadcast reels off voice clips of casual racism that are hard to believe while newspaper clippings give you a sense of the common prejudice black people of the time faced, while standing beside a picket line, later on, depicts unsettling military surveillance of an entirely peaceful protest. There’s no narrator to tell you how evil this is, no orchestra to exacerbate your emotions; the piece lets you simply soak it in for yourself.
That said, it’s not without its dramatic moments; a fatal gunshot ringing out across a blue afternoon sky that will have you ducking for cover, while the closing scene in the Lorraine Motel (which is where the Civil Rights Museum now stands) offers a somber moment of reflection. It speaks to the power of the experience, though, that these moments of cinematic flair are overshadowed by the piece’s more understated sequences.
You don’t have to ‘do’ anything in I Am A Man, and that inaction speaks volumes unto itself, especially in a pivotal scene in which you watch the announcement of King’s death amidst city riots. It feels like a living museum an exhibit that lives around you as an indisputable recount of the facts and not a manipulative or provocative story trying to rally you to its cause. By letting the history speak for itself, I Am A Man creates something far more memorable; everytime you hear or see something unsettling you look down, see your hands, and realize this is all aimed at you. You still carry your memories, your life experiences, but people still hate you just because of the color of your hands and you can’t change that. For someone like me, getting to experience just this tiny fraction of the enormity of that concept is arresting beyond words.
Ham eventually ended up working with the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on the experience, which gives the viewer some much-needed context and authenticity. Between scenes, archived audio of an interview with a striker plays. “With each scene I was tapping into emotional responses that even I was experiencing as I surveyed historical photos and listened to publicly accessible interviews from the strikers,” Ham explains.
“In the end I was hoping to tell a Civil Rights story through VR in a way that both film, museums, and documentaries have not done yet,” Ham says. “By giving the user African American hands I feel (hope) this is achieved.”
I have to agree.
I Am A Man is set to tour film festivals over 2018 with a release on the Oculus Store as well as an installation at the Civil Rights Museum also planned.