As coronavirus rates have surged, production for numerous upcoming TV shows and films has been halted worldwide. But social-distancing precautions didn’t discourage journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates from reintroducing his 2015 culture-shifting nonfiction book Between the World and Me through a visual lens. Intentionally debuting after the 2020 election, HBO’s adaptation has a myriad of acclaimed Black thespians and activists reciting segments of the book in various intimate settings. Stage director and producer Kamilah Forbes, who adapted Between the World and Me for the Apollo Theatre in 2018, returns to take the reins as director for this confrontational, impressionistic perspective of Black America.
In the past five years, HBO has made numerous efforts to amplify Black visibility on Insecure, Random Acts of Flyness, Lovecraft Country, and A Black Lady Sketch Show. A one-off film rather than a recurring series, Between the World and Me is HBO’s latest addition to the palette. Rife with award-winning actors (Jharrel Jerome, Mahershala Ali) and those who are long overdue for an Emmy Award (This Is Us star Susan Kelechi Watson, Mj Rodriquez), the film centers the Black plight and the disproportionate injustices we face. As of Nov. 10th, Black Americans experience the highest rate of COVID-19 mortality — about three times higher than white or Asians populations.
Through this grim reality, Between the World and Me also features captivating depictions of Black life, from its radical collage title sequence to the delicate montages of families and inner-city murals. The visuals are a nod to Coates’ West Baltimore upbringing, while the cast acts as a Greek chorus for the author’s revelation about the nation’s racialized dysfunction. During Barack Obama’s two-term presidency, Coates was disgruntled with Obama’s contradiction between providing solace to white people through his political rhetoric, while numerous cases of police brutality against Black people went viral. Coates was driven to warn his young son, Samori, about the social implications of being a Black person in America: “This is your country, this is your world and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
Taking a cue from James Baldwin’s 1963 double-essay book The Fire Next Time, Between the World and Me is just as piercing when recited as a choreopoem as it is in book form — maybe more so. While some actors in the film visibly read passages from their MacBook screens and cue cards, others memorized their segments, capturing the book’s essence in dramatized fashion. Between the World and Me isn’t just a soliloquy between father and son anymore. It’s urgent for Black people to gain a widespread awareness of an unethical nation that’s designed to work against our favor. Not even democracy can save us.
Between jazz numbers and spoken-word stylings, Between the World and Me provides soundscapes for millennial and Gen-Z viewers to revel in, from the declarative anthem “Black” by Compton rapper Buddy to “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby, the most-streamed protest song after the death of George Floyd. Like the film’s score, the cast of Between the World and Me is multi-generational, retelling the disparities between Black and white communities. In one segment, Angela Bassett sits poised within a den, describing the white-picket-fence dream. When characters in The Brady Bunch and 90210 were able to roam invincibly without glancing over their shoulders for hidden dangers, Black youth sought the same desires.
Amid this vision of whitewashed life, Black Americans have always been on the opposing end, as explained by Grown-ish darling Yara Shahidi and political activist Angela Y. Davis. In his youth, Coates took a liking to the empowered presence of Malcolm X, though history classes ritualistically forced images of docile, nonviolent civil-rights figures on him. Perhaps the redundancy of these lessons was a subtle attempt to make white students feel at ease, without being exposed to the radicalism of the Black Panther Party, or the 1973 blaxploitation film The Spook Who Sat By the Door. Footage of Black protestors of the 1950s and ’60s being beaten, hosed, and arrested were commonly shown to Coates and fellow students. Davis and Shahidi repeat the concerns he wrote: “Why are they showing this to us?”
Coates was freed from those messages once he arrived as an undergrad student at Howard University, but he didn’t find his identity by receiving student honors — it was through “The Mecca.” On the HBCU’s campus, Watson (who received her BFA from Howard) gives a riveting spoken performance about the counterculture vastness of Black students. Unlike the many HBCUs based in historically confederate states, Howard University is in the heart of Washington D.C., where students are in the presence of political acumen and revolution across the Black diaspora.
Howard University is also where Coates found love three times over, conceiving his son with the woman who became his wife. In Coates’ words, Samori wasn’t a birth, but a “summoning.” Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali sheds a tear while speaking Coates’ lines about protecting a child from a flawed reality. After the initial joy of starting a family, the worry settles in: the investments Black parents put into raising their children doesn’t define whether those children are capable of surviving to adulthood.
In a dashcam-style sequence, Rodriquez re-enacts the terror of a traffic stop, as Coates was once pulled over by a Prince George County police officer shortly before his son was born. While Rodriquez sits in the glow of fluorescent police cruiser lights, Kendrick Sampson of Insecure shares the passage in a less-passionate reading, seated in a separate car in the daytime. The frustration with systemic oppression swells throughout Between the World and Me, from the wrongful murder of Coates’ friend Prince Jones by PG County police in late 2000 to Coates’ inability to empathize as the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook New York City. While watching the Twin Towers fall into ruin, Coates remembered that Manhattan’s Financial District was once a prime location for slave trading during the 18th century.
Arguably the most gripping moment of Between the World and Me is held between Tony-nominated actress Michelle Wilson and The Wire’s Wendell Pierce. Both capture the aggression that any Black parent would feel when watching their child being hurled to the ground by a stranger, someone who deems a Black child as valueless for being in the way. The incident Coates describes was a Karen moment before “Karen” became a meme. The white woman who dehumanized Samori also threatened Coates with “I could have you arrested” — an all-too-common pompous threat used to keep Black people from getting out of line.
Black people in America can find any error in behavior is costly, which painter Molly Crabapple and Oprah Winfrey address in a segment about the way Black bodies sacrificially built America. Representing the cannibalism of American industries and the prison system, Crabapple dowses paintings of Black people, rivers, and buried skulls in blood-red paint.
While those who voted for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (also a Howard alumna) are enthused about their win, Between the World and Me unveils that having the first vice president of color hasn’t changed the inequity of America’s core. The film provides viewers with a much-needed dose of the reality Black Americans have endured since we were involuntarily brought here in the 1600s. Midway through, Between the World and Me, reveals Samori’s namesake, the West African military strategist Samori Ture. Though Ture was killed in captivity, the struggle was greater than him. As Between the World and Me tells it, Black Americans are still enduring that struggle, but they have the strength to outlive it.
Between the World and Me is available on HBO and HBO Max. From Nov. 25-30, it will stream free at the HBO Max site.