HBO's Between the World and Me translates Ta-Nehisi Coates for TV
Like many people in COVID-19 lockdown, Kamilah Forbes takes part in a regular Zoom gathering with friends. Most of the time, the group plays games and chats from living rooms across the country, but one night this spring was different.
It was, as the award-winning director-producer puts it, “the weekend of George Floyd.” Forbes and her friends found themselves linked together but stunned speechless. “We just couldn’t talk because we were watching the protests on our television collectively.”
Those wrenching events led to inspiration. “Wow,” Forbes remembers thinking, “what we need is to have the moment of Between the World and Me right now. How can we share that with the world?” She set about bringing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning 2015 bestseller to TV in the middle of a global pandemic. Forbes was part of the team that had adapted the book for the stage, and realized a film was the natural next step. Enter HBO.
Like the book, which is framed as a letter to Coates’ son, the movie (out Saturday) covers a wide swath of the Black experience — touching not just on police violence and other forms of oppression but on the ways in which joy is as crucial to Black identity as pain. Adapting the book for the small screen was a new challenge for Forbes and executive producer, actress Susan Kelechi Watson (This Is Us). The pair, pals with Coates since their days at Howard University, previously collaborated on a stage iteration that translated the text, largely, into a series of monologues performed at the Apollo Theater and the Kennedy Center.
They applied a similar monologue structure — perfect for shooting in a pandemic with flexibility to include a larger number of voices —and added new musical and visual flourishes for HBO’s version. To help deliver those impassioned passages, Forbes and Watson recruited a staggering list of boldfaced names that include Oprah Winfrey, Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Yara Shahidi, Joe Morton, and Phylicia Rashad, as well as activists such as Angela Davis and Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza. For grown-ish star Shahidi, her role was a chance to portray an awakening. “I’m a teenage girl who’s coming of age in a time in which she is aware of the slanted and unfair portrayals of the civil rights movement,” she says. “You see her coming to another level of awareness through her introduction to Malcolm X.”
The young activist is a huge fan of the author's work. "Coates has an ability to comment on modern race relations in a way that not only brings the Black canon of iconic thought leaders into our present day, but expands upon their work," says Shahidi.
For Black viewers, Scandal star Morton hopes the special “deepens a sense of who they are, what belongs to them, where they come from…and for the white folks, I hope it gives them a view into Black life, but through the eyes of Black people.”For his part, Coates says “I’ve mostly tried to stay out of the way as much as possible,” because of his faith in his collaborators. “I know Kamilah as a friend and an artist very, very well. She’s probably the only person who I really would’ve trusted to do it.”
To ensure it reaches a wide audience, the film will be made available for free online outside of HBO’s paywall. “That was one of the things we were adamant about,” says Watson. “I hope that people are changed for the better by watching it. That there’s an opening into something more positive and a deeper understanding of the Black culture.”