HBO Turns Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Between the World and Me’ Into a Living Testimonial of the Black American Experience

HBO has taken Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning “Between the World and Me” and transformed it into a living example of how lives are witnesses to history. There is a reason why historians love to mine letters from times past to get a sense, a feeling of an era. Coates wrote his book as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori, as a panorama of the Black American experience over the last half century. The book was then adapted into a stage production which premiered at the Apollo Theater in 2018. This filmed version stays loyal to that production’s format, consisting of different personalities reading excerpts from Coates’ book. But now turned into cinema, the effect is absorbing.

Director Kamilah Forbes assembles some of the most recognizable Black artists in America to not narrate, but perform the text, which has been adapted by David Teague. The power of Coates’ writing is in how it feels both personal and universal. His life speaks for so many Black American lives that came of age under the influence of the Civil Rights movement and the rising battle against police brutality and inequality. Forbes switches between genders, allowing men and women to tell the story, which gives it even greater resonance. The language is an eloquent reckoning with all that growing up in a hyper capitalist society like America entails, from the dreams we are fed as children about prosperity to the harsh awakening as young adults that equality can be a mirage. Some moments have a powerful, nostalgic feel as when Susan Kelechi Watson recites Coates’ first days at Howard University, the “Mecca” as it is known, and the first, insecure flushes of youth when coming into contact with a wider world of people from global backgrounds. Yara Shahidi and ‘60s activist icon Angela Davis touch on political awakenings, and the feverish energy of dismissing conformist history while discovering a love for the intelligent, thundering radicalism of Malcolm X. 

No monologue this year will capture the power of meeting the love of your life like the passages performed by Mahershala Ali, which are wondrous recollections of meeting several, memorable lovers before finding the one that stayed and became Samori’s mother. Forbes bridges these moments with the wider historical context through a poetic use of photographs, stock footage and documentary clips. It’s an overwhelming effect because the clips themselves give a sense of time’s flow. She sticks primarily to footage from the ‘60s and then videotape from the ‘90s, creating the real feel of coming into contact with a particular generation. Once Coates gets married and becomes a father, a tense cloud forms socially through the murder of Prince Carmen Jones, a Howard graduate who was gunned down by a Black officer in 2000. The Jones case is a tragic and perfect starting point for the narrative to explore the issues of social inequality and violence which lie at the heart of ongoing struggles and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Jones was killed in a case of mistaken identity that crystalizes the attitudes that keep communities living under eternal suspicion of authorities.

In one of the film’s most powerful, even unnerving moments, Janet Mock and Kendrick Sampson re-enact the Jones traffic stop, evoking all of the unnecessary human waste that comes with such terror. Wendell Pierce delivers a searing recollection of Coates trying to take action in public when a white woman pushes aside his child, as if he were a mere nuisance. It spirals into a situation we have seen all too common in the news, as the white participant then tries to use the police as protection against a Black individual. This microcosmic moment embodies the sense of prejudice that can explode on a wider scale when murder takes place, as in the Jones case. The dialogue becomes a striking cadence about what our bodies mean as humans, and how attacking a Black person for the simple fact of having darker skin is a violation of humanity, of existence. It is a supreme crime to violate a person’s autonomy and sense of both safety and worth. Phylicia Rashad’s performance, as the mother of a victim, has a shattering power in her dignified poise and defiance. Angela Bassett likewise brings her regal presence to her passages.

How much personal, social and even philosophical ground “Between the World and Me” covers is truly astonishing. Intimate and historical observations commingle to create a hypnotic effect. Certain lines strike like well-formed lightning, like Courtney B. Vance reflecting on how Wall Street was once the site of slave auctioneers, meaning Osama Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to New York City. Oprah Winfrey, in a performance of subdued force, makes important meditations, one of which is how racism transforms a victim like Trayvon Martin into some kind of monstrous specter, when all he had in his hand the night he was killed was a bag of candy. Fittingly, a new section has been added to the narrative where Coates himself appears speaking about Breonna Taylor. It’s the perfect closing statement, because both life and social struggles continue. With every new life taken and every new movement that takes shape, other stories are constantly being added to this testimonial.

“Between the World and Me” has a potent aura centered on the power of well-composed words speaking truth. It’s similar to great films like Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” where the words of James Baldwin break down the Black American experience through a reflection on life and culture. Coates wrote a resonant letter to his son, but as film it becomes a poetic expression of being Black in America, of feeling hope and despair, of being pulled in by historical forces out of your control. Like all great testimonials, it should not be viewed by just one sector of society, but by everyone. We can’t begin to erase our artificial borders until we cross them and walk in each other’s shoes. 

Between the World and Me” airs Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.