The recent release of such critically acclaimed TV productions as Watchmen and Lovecraft Country has marked HBO as a major producer of critically acclaimed African American-focused content. The network’s status will only continue to rise after the release of Between the World and Me, a cinematic adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eponymous 2015 National Book Award-winning work of nonfiction, written in the form of a letter to his young son about the peril and promise of being Black in America.
Beautifully photographed, HBO’s Between the World and Me features a vivid and varied cast of noted Black actors, artists, celebrities, activists and musicians including Angela Davis, Joe Morton, Oprah Winfrey, Black Thought, Mahershala Ali, Wendell Pierce, and Phylicia Rashad, who deliver a series of monologues based on Coates’ writing from the book. The film was directed by Kamilah Forbes, who had previously transformed Coates’s book into a play that she produced at the Apollo theater in Harlem.
“It was such a poignant, first-person narrative text that Ta-Nehesi had written, that I wanted to take and ultimately translate that into a series of monologues that I knew would sit in various voices on their bodies,” Forbes said by phone. “It was always about how we build a myriad of different voices; people of different ages, experiences, within Ta-Nehisi’s voice. Because of film, we had an opportunity to story-tell through other images; to use archival [footage], different kinds of music, animation, visual texture. So it was about how do we use these mediums to tell a story.”
Though written five years ago, Coates’ book is a chilling account of the deadly nature of Black American life at the hands of the police and serves as a preview of the tragic shootings that would come. Forbes said the killing of Floyd this summer and the protests that followed led the production company to take the initiative to bring the project to the screen. “We came to HBO,” Forbes said. “We felt that they were the perfect partners. We knew what happened in June. We were talking to them in July. We wanted to have an urgent conversation about today, about this time. We were right on the heels of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders, and the protests that erupted, and this was our opportunity, with art to have that conversation.”
And what a conversation it is. There’s Morton’s funereal pronouncement in the film, “Son, I’m telling you this in your fifteenth year. I’m telling you this because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store.” And there is Angela Davis asking, “Why were only our heroes nonviolent?” Winfrey warns that “in America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body. It is heritage. There is no uplifting way to say this.” And there is Rashad’s elegant and heartbreaking portrayal as the mother of Prince Carmen Jones, a Howard University student killed by police and a central figure in the book’s narrative: “When he turned 23, I bought him a Jeep with a big purple bow on it, and I can still see him there saying, thank you, Mom. And that was the Jeep he was killed in.”
Although he did not graduate, Coates found his calling as a writer while he attended Howard University, one of the country’s most prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the university is portrayed as a place of hope and reinvention in the book and in the film. It was also where Coates’ first met Forbes, who graduated with a degree in theater.
“We all knew that we were very passionate and talented,” Forbes fondly recalled. “Howard instilled that in us: that there is immense possibility in us. We all were inspired by each other’s creativity,” he said, citing professors who “really opened up the landscape of aesthetics, of how stories can be told. And Phylicia Rashad, another Howard graduate, was my acting teacher. What a gift! She came down to DC every week to teach that seminar for the whole year.”
The late and acclaimed novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison—yet another Howard University graduate—also looms large in Coates’ life. It was Morrison who proclaimed that Coates’ “might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.” Indeed BTWAM, Forbes said, is an excellent bookend to Raul Peck’s 2016 James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.
Forbes cited The Fire Next Time, Baldwin’s 1963 essay collection on race in America, which features an essay in the form of a letter to a young family member. “Ta-Nehisi talks about how inspirational that was to him as a writer,” Forbes said “So, I think that was an appropriate comparison to be made. And I Am Not Your Negro is a film told through a rich, visual tapestry, which is also a big part of the aesthetics that we use during for this film as well.”
Forbes noted that Coates couldn’t stop shaping the script, even when he reads his own words. “Even as he was doing his monologue, the editor in him was always working,” Forbes said, laughing and noting that Coates would say, “let me add another line in there.” Forbes said Coates “thought it was a trippy experience to revisit a text that he wrote five years ago. As an artist, you grow, and it’s interesting to see his relationship to the text, versus our relationship to the text.”
The filmmakers also make use of Coates’ personal photographs of his Baltimore boyhood, his years at Howard University and beyond, throughout the film. And as the film closes, Coates makes a powerful concluding statement, “They made us a race. But we made ourselves into a people.”