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HBO's Between the World and Me creates a tapestry of history, art and images from Ta-Nehisi Coates' words

  • "With his critically acclaimed nonfiction work, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates laid himself bare," says Aramide Tinubu. "Writing the book as a letter to his then 15-year-old son, Coates unearthed memories from his boyhood in West Baltimore, then moved to his son’s birth and into the present day. Between the World and Me was published in 2015, just before Trump gave new life to the United States’ rotten core. In the years since, social media and the ubiquity of cameraphones has amplified Black death in the media. Police brutality, unyielding anti-Blackness, and an exhausting presidential election cycle have dominated our day-to-day lives. With history at his back and the events of his own Black life embedded in his memory, the journalist could not have predicted our current state when he first published his manuscript. Still, the author ended up pretty spot-on. Coates was brutally realistic about Black life, even then. In HBO’s film adaptation of the New York Times best-seller, his words echo across the screen, burrowing into our past and leaving hints about the future of Black America and this country." Tinubu adds: "Amid COVID-19 restrictions, many productions have used Zoom-style setups for their projects, forcing their subjects into narrow and confining boxes. In contrast, using her theater background, Forbes widens her scope toward the Black diaspora, filming her subjects in their private spaces and using Coates’ memories, photos, and words to anchor the material. Instead of feeling confined, the director creates an intimacy backed by a history of both joy and rage. The words spoken in Between the World and Me come directly from Coates’ pages—they include the poverty and dejection he witnessed in the Baltimore of his youth, as well as the euphoria and awe he witnessed at Howard University, a place he calls 'The Mecca.' Yet, by layering the film with archival footage, speeches, artwork, and music, the production moves beyond Coates to reach out to all Black people."


    • Between the World and Me is heartbreaking: "It’s a dynamic visual ode to Coates’ poetic letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori Coates, on coming of age as a Black boy in America; for a Black son who does not yet realize that he will very likely have to walk the same long, hard road in a country that doesn’t love him back, like his father has done," says Tambay Obenson. "A rude awakening awaits. And for those reasons alone, the film is a kind of heartbreaking. How do you adapt a book that’s essentially a long, poetically-written missive from a father to his son? There’s maybe really no other way than what director Forbes does here — and she does pull it off. It’s a mix of epistolary non-fiction, memoir, and political thesis, with cinematography by Bradford Young, which of course means the new footage looks good. (It’s just too bad none of it was included in the only trailer HBO cut for it.)"
    • Between the World and Me combines to bring Coates’ words up off the page with startlingly precise intent: "Old news footage transitions to recent outrages; dreams are shattered and reassembled to reflect unflinching truths," says Hank Stuever. "There’s as much to look at as there is to hear; the words and images meld almost seamlessly."
    • The adaptation relies heavily on the chops of the artists delivering Coates’ words: "The circumstances under which the book and its TV adaptation enter the world serve as a reminder that in America, Coates is always relevant," says Soraya Nadia McDonald. "While HBO’s Between the World and Me doesn’t feel rushed, it bears the markers of a work made in the COVID-19 era. Forbes employs tight shots that fill the frame with the faces of actors Joe Morton, Yara Shahidi, Winfrey, Janet Mock, Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Wendell Pierce, Phylicia Rashad, Jharrel Jerome and Mj Rodriguez. As such, the adaptation relies heavily on the chops of the artists delivering Coates’ words, who are spliced together with archival footage and photographs and original music by Jason Moran, the John F. Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz. It’s not a competition, but Ali has everyone licked, in part because his gentle, deep-voiced presence is paired with the most romantic part of the book, when Coates talks about meeting Samori’s mother, Kenyatta, at Howard University, the place that shaped him."
    • The TV adaptation is a worthy screen translation of Coates’ monumental work: The special is closer to a visual essay than a documentary, using archival footage, original animation and hip-hop tracks lending historical and emotional texture to the author’s words.
    • Between the World and Me was meant for the page, not for the screen: In fact, the most powerful part of the special comes after the ending
    • Director Kamilah Forbes wanted the film to be a vital response to current events: “So then it really became, ‘OK, if our biggest challenge is Covid, how do we start to structure this in a way that we can be as safe as possible?’” Forbes said. But Forbes worried about filming scenes over video chat. "You want to be there with your actors,” she said. “You want to be able to walk up and have that conversation between takes. Meanwhile, when I can be with actors, I’ve got P.P.E. on, a mask and a face guard and like a freaking cape.” Some intimacy had been lost, she said.
    • Susan Kelechi Watson wanted to turn her grief over George Floyd into art: “I was searching for a way that would express what I was feeling, and I realized Ta-Nehisi’s book had already done that,” said Watson, who executive produces the special. “I needed to express how wrong police brutality is, how wrong racism is, how unfair and unjust it is, how much grieving is going on in the Black community, how vulnerable this community is above others.”
    • To ensure it reaches a wide audience, the film will be made available for free online outside of HBO’s paywall: “That was one of the things we were adamant about,” says Watson. “I hope that people are changed for the better by watching it. That there’s an opening into something more positive and a deeper understanding of the Black culture.”

    TOPICS: Between the World and Me, HBO, George Floyd, Kamilah Forbes, Susan Kelechi Watson, Ta-Nehisi Coates