Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me, is not an easy book to adapt to film. It’s the story of one person’s life, but it’s also a much larger statement about Black identity and American history. It’s framed as a letter to the author’s teenage son, in which he tells the story of his difficult upbringing in West Baltimore and his time attending historically Black Howard University, which broadened his horizons, revealing to him “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” He discusses falling in love with a fellow student, who would become his son’s mother; being a struggling writer in New York; and taking a revelatory trip to Paris, France, where he got a new perspective on his own American-ness. He movingly discusses how the enslavement of Black people was about destroying Black bodies, and how Black bodies have always been in danger in America. He talks about how his Howard University friend Prince Carmen Jones was killed by an undercover cop who went unpunished, his rage at the injustice, and his fears for his own son’s safety.
It’s a complex, kaleidoscopic, and poetic work—and not the sort of thing that a single actor could take on in a standard biopic. Kamilah Forbes seems to have been aware of this in October of last year, when she staged a production of Between the World and Me at the Apollo Theater in New York City. In this performance, numerous actors, and Coates himself, read passages from his work, accompanied by rear-screen projections and live music.
This show provided the basis for a new TV special, also directed by Forbes, premiering on HBO on Nov. 21. But the program isn’t merely a series of shots of speakers at podiums; instead, it takes the idea of a staged reading to a more powerful, and personal, place.
A few of the actors that took part last year’s staged reading are in this special, too, including Emmy winner Joe Morton, who’s a welcome, steady presence. Coates, who also serves as an executive producer, returns to read a portion of his own work, near the end of the special. But this version also includes Oscar winner Oprah Winfrey; Tony and Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance; Golden Globe winner Angela Bassett; and Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome, among other luminaries.
The special was filmed in August of this year, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, so many of the actors are filmed in their own homes, seated on couches and chairs, which smoothly fits the book’s conversational tone. This dynamic also results in some truly startling performances. Mahershala Ali, who’s won multiple Academy Awards, presents a moving rendition of Coates’ tribute to his wife, for example, which gets across the transformative power of love, and Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad portrays Prince Jones’ mother with a hushed sorrow that commands the screen.
A lively montage of photos, animation, and archival film footage appears between the spoken segments, which include several unexpected moments. A seething interlude by spoken-word poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, accompanied by drums, brings out the lyricism of the original text. Another section of the book, in which Coates discusses the writings of Black thinkers, is narrated by none other than Angela Y. Davis, who’s influenced a great many thinkers herself. Overall, the special keeps close to the words of Coates’ book, but it acknowledges the present moment by including a brief section of the author’s later interview with the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was tragically killed by a plainclothes policeman in March of this year.
When our judges awarded the Kirkus Prize to Between the World and Me in 2015, they called it “a crucial, urgent, and nuanced contribution to a long-overdue national conversation.” One can say the same for this special, which gets across all the power of Coates’ words, and more.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.