‘In response to the moment’: HBO’s ‘Between the World and Me’ reflects summer’s Black Lives Matter protests

What can a Black person expect living in the U.S.?

That’s the central question Ta-Nehisi Coates answers in his book, “Between the World and Me,” published in 2015 – a question spun forward in an HBO film (Saturday, 8 EST/PST), adapted from a stage production of Coates’ work that features Mahershala Ali and Angela Bassett.

The movie, like the book, is structured as an open letter to Coates’ adolescent son Samori about what to expect as a Black person living in the U.S., and the words still ring true in 2020 in the face of institutional racism and police brutality. 

The 2018 stage adaptation premiered at the Apollo Theater in New York, and his since been performed in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., with  a rotating cast of actors. More performances were scheduled until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, says director Kamilah Forbes.

“Between the World and Me” has been a regular presence on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books List, won the National Book Award and received new attention last summer when the Black Lives Matter protests led to a surge in sales for books about race and racism.

This summer’s protests got everyone thinking about how to bring “Between the World and Me” back, and conversations with networks began, Forbes says. This way, “people could still see and still experience the work that we felt was even that much more timely right now.” 

Kamilah Forbes directed "Between the World and Me."

Like the stage adaptation, the film features a series of actors reading Coates’ words. “I related to everything he said, so I wanted to find a way in: How do we take a body of voices that embody one man’s voice?” Forbes says.  

Audiences will recognize other actors like Jharrel Jerome, Phylicia Rashad, Mj Rodriguez, Kendrick Sampson, Yara Shahidi, Courtney B. Vance and Susan Kelechi Watson, as well as activists Angela Davis and Alicia Garza.

Another big-name reader? Oprah Winfrey. “It was such an honor just to have her on the project and have her voice.”  Forbes says.

Oprah Winfrey appears in HBO's "Between the World and Me."

The film also includes documentary footage from the actors’ home lives, archival video and animation.

Forbes particularly loves the archival footage of a typical 1950s Black family. “It’s so layered and textured and personal,” she says.  Another scene  features a young boy who runs to his father and hugs him. Both are crying. “It’s that moment of just tender human parental safety and love and connection that we all want for our children,” Forbes says.

Black parents have disproportionately lost that chance of protecting their children in the face of police brutality. The film tells the story of Prince Jones, Coates’ friend from Howard University, who died at the hands of police violence , in addition to others including Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor.

After Louisville Metro Police fatally shot Taylor on March 13, Coates covered Taylor’s story for Vanity Fair, something Forbes was compelled to include. “I knew we wanted to use it, because I think it was important that this work be a reflection of now and of today, and really because we were making it in response to the moment,” she says. Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, spoke to Coates; the movie includes audio of their conversation.

What can a Black person expect living in the U.S.? That's the central question Ta-Nehisi Coates answers in his book, "Between the World and Me," published in 2015.

The concept of family is at the heart of the film, something the pandemic actually helped make more straightforward. 

“I knew a few things going into making this work: One, that we had a challenge of shooting people that if I wanted one or more persons together, I would need to cast people who were (quarantining) together,” Forbes says. “So it was very strategic to actually cast families in this work.”

Including mother and daughter actresses Olivia and Pauletta Washington provided “a really special moment and poignant moment, because that’s really what we wanted the film to illuminate and humanize, that this is not Pauletta an actress and Olivia an actress taking on a role,” Forbes says. “This is actually a mother and a daughter using (Coates’) words to ultimately express their own wishes and wants and fears, and trials and tribulations and joy and pain.”

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Contributing: Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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