As coronavirus rates have risen, production has been suspended for numerous upcoming TV shows and films around the world. But socially distant precautionary measures haven’t stopped journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates from reintroducing his 2015 culture-changing nonfiction book Between the world and me through a visual lens. HBO’s adaptation, which deliberately debuted after the 2020 election, has a host of acclaimed black thespians and activists reciting portions of the book in various intimate settings. Director and producer Kamilah Forbes who adapted Between the world and me returns for the Apollo Theater in 2018 to lead this confrontational, impressionist perspective on Black America.
Over the past five years, HBO has made numerous efforts to improve the visibility of black Unsure, Random acts of flight, Lovecraft Land, and A Black Lady Sketch Show. A one-time film instead of a recurring series, Between the world and me is HBO’s newest addition to the range. There are many 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 revolves around the plight of blacks and the disproportionate injustices we face. From November 10th Black Americans have the highest COVID-19 death rate – about three times higher than that of the white or Asian population.
Through this gloomy reality Between the world and me also offers fascinating depictions of black life, from its radical collage title sequence to the delicate montages of families and inner-city murals. The imagery is a nod to Coates’ upbringing in West Baltimore, while the cast acts as the Greek choir for the author’s reveal about the nation’s racial dysfunction. During Barack Obama’s two-year presidency, Coates was angry at Obama’s opposition to his political rhetoric as consolation for Whites, while numerous cases of police brutality against blacks went viral. Coates was driven to warn his young son Samori about the social impact of being a black person in America: “This is your country, this is your world, and you have to find a way to live in all of this.”
A cue from James Baldwin’s 1963 double essay book The fire next time, Between the world and me is just as pervasive as Pieropoem as it is in book form – perhaps even more so. While some actors in the film are visibly reading passages from their MacBook screens and cue cards, others have memorized their segments and dramatically captured the essence of the book. Between the world and me is no longer just a monologue between father and son. There is an urgent need for blacks to become aware of an unethical nation that is supposed to work against our favor. Not even democracy can save us.
Between jazz numbers and spoken word stylings, Between the world and me offers soundscapes for Millennial and Gen Z viewers, 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 score, the cast of Between the world and me is cross-generational and tells the differences between black and white communities. In one segment, Angela Bassett sits in a cave and describes the dream of the white picket fence. If characters are in The Brady Bunch and 90210 could wander invincibly without looking over their shoulders for hidden dangers, black youths sought the same desires.
Amid this vision of a whitewashed life, black Americans were always on the opposing end, as explained by Grown Darling Yara Shahidi and political activist Angela Y. Davis. In his teens, Coates liked the heightened presence of Malcolm X, although history classes ritually imposed images of docile, nonviolent civil rights activists on him. Perhaps the redundancy of these lessons was a subtle attempt to make white students feel comfortable without exposure to the radicalism of the Black Panther Party or the 1973 blaxploitation film The ghost that sat at the door
Coates got rid of this news when he arrived at Howard University as a student, but he didn’t find his identity by receiving student awards – it was through “The Mecca”. On the HBCUWatson (who received her BFA from Howard) gives an engaging, spoken performance on campus about the vastness of the counterculture of black students. Unlike the many HBCUs in historically Confederate states, Howard University is located in the heart of Washington DC, where students throughout the black diaspora experience political acumen and revolution.
At Howard University, Coates also found love three times and received his son with the woman who became his wife. In Coates’ words, Samori was not a birth but an “incantation”. Oscar winner Mahershala Ali sheds a tear as she speaks Coates’ lines about protecting a child from a flawed reality. After the initial joy of raising a family, worry subsides: the investments black parents make in raising their children do not define whether those children will be able to survive into adulthood.
In a dashcam-style sequence, Rodriquez reenacts the terror of a traffic obstruction when Coates was stopped by a Prince George County police officer shortly before his son was born. While Rodriquez sits under the glow of fluorescent police cruiser lights, Kendrick Sampson is from Unsure
Probably the most gripping moment of Between the world and me takes place between Tony nominated actress Michelle Wilson and The cableWendell Pierce. Both capture the aggression a black parent would experience if they watched their child be thrown to the ground by a stranger who deems a black child worthless because it stands in their 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 that keeps blacks from getting out of line.
Black people in America can find that any mistake in behavior is costly. In a section, painters Molly Crabapple and Oprah Winfrey talk about how black bodies sacrificially built America. Crabapple represents the cannibalism of American industry and the prison system, and features paintings of black people, rivers, and buried skulls in blood red color.
While those who voted for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris (also a Howard Alumna) are thrilled with their victory, Between the world and me Reveals First Vice President of Color hasn’t changed the inequality of the American core. The film offers viewers a much-needed dose of reality that black Americans have experienced since we were involuntarily brought here in the 17th century. Halfway through Between the world and me, reveals Samori’s namesake, West African military strategist Samori Ture. Although Ture was killed in captivity, the fight was bigger than him. As Between the world and me it says black Americans still endure this struggle, but they have the strength to survive it.
Between the world and me will debut on November 21 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.