With HBO's adaptation, 'Between the World and Me' is a must-watch

  • Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the film's executive producers, walks across Howard University's campus.

    Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the film's executive producers, walks across Howard University's campus. Courtesy of HBO

 
 
Posted11/21/2020 6:00 AM

Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2015 bestseller "Between the World and Me" became the defining work of a new reckoning on race in America, and, even at a mere 152 pages, it stands mighty on its own -- essential reading for anyone who wishes to be a cognizant part of the country's future. It's no small challenge, therefore, to try to translate the book's powerful mix of memoir and scholarship into a film.

But the current moment presents Kamilah Forbes's HBO adaptation (airing Saturday) with a chance to prove that "Between the World and Me" is as much a living, evolving document as it is a book on the shelf.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Working from the 2018 staging she first directed at the Apollo Theater (and later at the Kennedy Center), Forbes enlists an impressive array of talent (Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Jharrel Jerome, Wendell Pierce, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Tip "T.I." Harris and Courtney B. Vance, among many others) to read sections of the book against a constantly moving collage of pictures, animation, clips and other artful and often surprising segues.

All of it combines to bring Coates's 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. There's as much to look at as there is to hear; the words and images meld almost seamlessly.

The project was filmed in August, under pandemic conditions and, more important, in the midst of nationwide waves of anger after the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Taylor's death, in particular, resupplies much of the anger Coates initially harnessed in the book, expressed in the form of a letter to his teenage son: "Here is what I'd like you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body. It is heritage. There is no uplifting way to say this. ... Son, we are captured, surrounded by bandits. This has happened in our only home."

Kendrick Sampson is one of the many actors featured in "Between The World and Me."
Kendrick Sampson is one of the many actors featured in "Between The World and Me." - Courtesy of HBO
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The structure mirrors that of the book, as Coates recalls the world of fear and constant surveillance in which he, and all Black children, grow up -- recognizing bit by bit that the American Dream they see on TV is not intended for them (fast glimpses of "The Brady Bunch" and other sitcoms are particularly effective here). Only when he arrives on the campus of Howard University does Coates experience a feeling he calls "the Mecca," which is not so much about a specific place as it is about the security of being surrounded by the fullest expression of Black culture and realized potential.

This feeling is brought home as "This Is Us" co-star and Howard alum Susan Kelechi Watson (who is one of the film's executive producers, along with Coates, Forbes and filmmaker Roger Ross Williams) walks across the campus's central communal space, The Yard, reading Coates's exuberant description of his time there.

The September 2000 death of Prince Carmen Jones, a college friend of Coates's who was shot and killed by an undercover Prince George's County, Md., police officer, becomes a defining moment for Coates. It is here that Forbes puts her performers ("Insecure's" Kendrick Sampson; "Pose's" Mj Rodriguez) in that most vulnerable of positions: behind the wheel of a car, where flashing police lights can cause an almost paralyzing fear.

Although police killings are central part of "Between the World and Me" -- always possible, always feared, part of a never-ending assault on one's deepest sense of identity -- the real theme returns to finding life, finding one's Mecca, in a world intent on reinforcing oppression and death. "Black people love their children in a kind of obsession," Coates writes. "You are all that we have and you come to us endangered."

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"Between the World and Me" (80 minutes) airs Saturday on HBO.

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