The 2015 Ta-Nehisi Coatess bestseller Between the World and Me is, among other things, a memoir, a history lesson, a complaint for lost lives and a letter to his son, Samori, then in his 15th year. Now, as an HBO movie, the adaptation is just as hard to classify, and so much the better for that. In the hands of director Kamilah Forbes, who previously adapted the book for a 2018 stage production at the Apollo Theater, HBO’s version is a beautifully painful prose poem about being black in America yesterday and today. ‘hui. It hits you in the head but most of all in the heart, as it mixes up emotional readings from the book Coatess, archival snippets of the Black experience in America, a research soundtrack that breaks down into hip-hop songs, animation and watercolor sequences, and other devices. This is neither a documentary, nor a staging, nor a video clip; it’s all and more.
Forbes captures the meditative quality of the book Coatess, and the list of black notables who speak his words on screen, including Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Angela Davis, Susan Kelechi Watson, Mj Rodriguez, Oprah Winfrey, Jharrel Jerome, Wendell Pierce do it with nuanced anger, rage, fear, disbelief, grief, and hard-won wisdom. Many of the more lyrical lines they deliver hauntingly linger in the air throughout If you’re black you were born in prison, for example, and, to Coatess’ son, Wrestling is all I have for you. The adaptation was filmed in August under COVID protocols, so the performers either look directly into the camera or are shown to the side as they speak, often from home, a limitation that is, in some ways, a strength because it keeps the attention on words, voices and eyes. It’s the kind of intimate, still context you might expect when reading poetry.
HBOs Between the World and Me, which releases Saturday at 8 p.m., returns repeatedly to the theme of police violence against unarmed blacks, almost like an ending rhyme. The story of the death of Coatess Howard University classmate Prince Jones by police, who fired 16 shots at him, serves as a centerpiece, including a scene featuring Phylicia Rashad in the role from Joness’ mother, answering questions about Prince. It was extremely painful physically, she said of her death, Rashad revealing boundless agony with the slight quiver of his lips. He had a family, she said, he lived like a human being, and a racist act brought him back. In a watercolor montage earlier on the HBO show, we see a hand drawing scenes from black life one of which is splashed with red, the blood of so much hate.
When he wrote the book, Coates used names such as Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, along with Jones, to talk about police violence; now in the adaptation other names are also pronounced. The timeliness of his book has not diminished. One of the most atrocious scenes shows the cast members reacting to a recording of Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by cops in Louisville in March. As Palmer talks about the many hours she spent in the hospital and in the cold, waiting to find out what happened to her daughter, unaware that she was dead, each of the performers listened in silence, Bassett shakes their heads. , Ali sheds a single tear. . It’s scary. The disrespect, breakability, and much worse, of white American black bodies, how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold, is a lingering theme.
Not all famous readers are men, obviously, and that opens the voice of the book, to some extent making the film a collective cry. Seeing Rodriguez, who is trans, sitting terrified behind the wheel of a car after being pulled over by police, adds additional layers to the story of Coatess driving while Black in his hometown of Baltimore. Likewise, photos of Coates and her son are interspersed with photos of other black families, to gesture outward, to expand everything we hear. It works, even if it takes away some of the personal and specific nature of the Coatess book. It brings a sense of community to the segments on the Women in the Life of Coatess, and her own time in Howard University’s Mecca (which features an enthralling clip of the late Chadwick Boseman giving a concluding graduation speech by, I love you Howard, Howard forever). Coates himself only appears near the end of the film, addressing his son in a powerful bookend labeled A Final Wisdom.
They made us an unforgettable race, he said. We made a people of us.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Angela Davis, Susan Kelechi Watson, Oprah Winfrey, Jharrel Jerome, Mj Rodriguez, Wendell Pierce, Phylicia Rashad, Kendrick Sampson, Yara Shahidi, Courtney B. Vance, Pauletta Washington
On: HBO. First Saturday at 8 p.m.