With his critically acclaimed nonfiction work, Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates laid himself bare. Writing the book as a letter to his then 15-year-old son, Coates unearthed memories from his boyhood in West Baltimore, then moved to his son’s birth and into the present day. Between The World And Me was published in 2015, just before Trump gave new life to the United States’ rotten core. In the years since, social media and the ubiquity of cameraphones has amplified Black death in the media. Police brutality, unyielding anti-Blackness, and an exhausting presidential election cycle have dominated our day-to-day lives. With history at his back and the events of his own Black life embedded in his memory, the journalist could not have predicted our current state when he first published his manuscript. Still, the author ended up pretty spot-on. Coates was brutally realistic about Black life, even then. In HBO’s film adaptation of the New York Times best-seller, his words echo across the screen, burrowing into our past and leaving hints about the future of Black America and this country.
Between The World And Me was filmed in August 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery—yet again, the most heinous parts of our nation had been exposed. Director and Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes uses the current climate as a backdrop, creating a tapestry of history, art, and images for Coates’ words. Featuring the resounding presences of Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Angela Davis, Jharrel Jerome, Joe Morton, Wendell Pierce, Phylicia Rashad, Mj Rodriguez, Susan Kelechi Watson, Oprah Winfrey, and Coates himself, among countless others, Forbes transforms the author’s work into a visual ode to Black struggle, love, and life.
Amid COVID-19 restrictions, many productions have used Zoom-style setups for their projects, forcing their subjects into narrow and confining boxes. In contrast, using her theater background, Forbes widens her scope toward the Black diaspora, filming her subjects in their private spaces and using Coates’ memories, photos, and words to anchor the material. Instead of feeling confined, the director creates an intimacy backed by a history of both joy and rage. The words spoken in Between The World And Me come directly from Coates’ pages—they include the poverty and dejection he witnessed in the Baltimore of his youth, as well as the euphoria and awe he witnessed at Howard University, a place he calls “The Mecca.” Yet, by layering the film with archival footage, speeches, artwork, and music, the production moves beyond Coates to reach out to all Black people.
With an approximate runtime of 80 minutes, Between The World And Me is mostly even and well-paced, though some moments stay with you longer than others. All the while, Coates’ pragmatic and realistic view of the world is woven throughout the piece. Some moments will make you sit up, like watching Angela Davis speak furiously in the past and present. There are also moments of resounding joy: Coates recalls falling in love with Howard University and then with three different women—including his son’s mother while attending the HBCU. Later, he speaks of homecoming and returning to The Mecca, this time with his son in tow.
Pain and loss are the most dominant emotions in this piece. Coates hangs on to a simmering rage over a slain friend. Prince Carmen Jones was a strapping young man, murdered some 20 years ago in Virginia, by a police officer who accused Jones of trying to run him over. Later, Phylicia Rashad speaks as Mabel Jones, Prince’s mother, the daughter of sharecroppers who described the sheer agony of losing her son. She recalls him dying in the Jeep she brought him for his 23rd birthday. Along with Mrs. Jones, there are the soft words of Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, who spoke of waiting around all night and day in the chilly spring weather, before someone mustered up the courage to tell her her child was gone.
More than bringing Coates’ words to life and connecting the past with the present, Forbes is deliberate about making sure Black women are seen here. Coates speaks of his wife, who was once told she was “pretty for a dark skin girl.” (Like Black men, Black women have been heavily burdened by America’s original sin.) Whether by incorporating the words of Ms. Palmer and Mrs. Jones or Coates’ musing on a woman who was damned by slavery, Forbes never lets you forget that Black women have suffered just as much as Black men.
The gaslighting of Black people is a long-standing tradition in this country—we’ve been accused of complaining too much or being angry for no reason. Seeing Coates’ words come to life as he reminisces about a white woman who pushed his then 4-year-old child as he toddled down an NYC street should remove all doubt. Between The World And Me is not some hopeful, optimistic assessment of what’s to become of this country or the Black people who built it. Instead, Coates, through Forbes’ lens, offers the truth. The film touches on the Black bodies put up for sale in New York City’s Financial District long before it was named Ground Zero, why respectability doesn’t save Black bodies, and the fear that Black people live with every day.
While Between The World And Me offers no blueprint for change, it does offer something else. Coates, Forbes, and all of the extraordinary Black faces seen here remind us that Black people have fought to be here. Although the struggle remains hard-won, that alone is worth the joyous moments, those moments of reprieve.