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HBO’s adaptation of ‘Between the World and Me’ is sadly still timely

The TV version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book puts Howard University and its alumni out front

In July 2015, Random House rushed to release Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ epistolary book written to his then-15-year-old son, Samori, as Americans struggled to find higher ground after a white supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that June.

Saturday, the screen adaptation of this book-length letter arrives on HBO following a summer of familiar sorrow, anguish and unrest. Its director, Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes, filmed the 80-minute television poem in August, when the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were weighing heavily on the national consciousness. (Forbes also directed a 2018 performance of Between the World and Me for the Apollo stage, and she’s also co-producing a feature film adaptation of Coates’ novel The Water Dancer alongside Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt’s Plan B.)

While Between the World and Me doesn’t feel rushed, it bears the markers of a work made in the COVID-19 era. Pictured: Wendell Pierce.

Courtesy of HBO

The circumstances under which the book and its TV adaptation enter the world serve as a reminder that in America, Coates is always relevant. While HBO’s Between the World and Me doesn’t feel rushed, it bears the markers of a work made in the COVID-19 era. Forbes employs tight shots that fill the frame with the faces of actors Joe Morton, Yara Shahidi, Winfrey, Janet Mock, Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Wendell Pierce, Phylicia Rashad, Jharrel Jerome and Mj Rodriguez. As such, the adaptation relies heavily on the chops of the artists delivering Coates’ words, who are spliced together with archival footage and photographs and original music by Jason Moran, the John F. Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz. It’s not a competition, but Ali has everyone licked, in part because his gentle, deep-voiced presence is paired with the most romantic part of the book, when Coates talks about meeting Samori’s mother, Kenyatta, at Howard University, the place that shaped him. “This girl revealed, that soft or hard, love was an act of heroism,” Coates wrote.

An exception to the format is the appearance of Howard alumnus Susan Kelechi Watson, who Forbes, also a Howard alum, filmed on the famous Yard at the Washington school as she extolled the many possibilities of Blackness, freedom and love that Coates writes about there. I mention those who are associated with Howard because it’s such a big part of the text, of Coates’ life, of his worldview. Though Between the World and Me is addressed to Samori, it is just as much a love letter to Howard as anything else.

I wondered if Between the World and Me would have been better suited for a 2021, postvaccine production, and I realized that I’d taken it for granted that the work would hold because in a year or two or three, the odds are high that we’ll be mourning the loss of someone else whose life was cut short simply because they are Black. The art holds because the contempt for Black agency cannot be erased in a matter of months, and the fatal consequences of such contempt occur with such regularity. Between the World and Me is, in part, a snapshot of the self-realization that Coates experienced when Howard student Prince Jones was killed by an undercover Prince George’s County, Maryland, police officer in September 2000. The names didn’t stop after Jones’ death. Instead, they accumulated.

But Between the World and Me is here now, and though it’s marked with the scars of 2020, it also carries a Black generational hallmark. It is a work sprung from the minds of Generation X artists who came of age with Def Poetry Jam, which aired on HBO from 2002 to 2007. There’s a reason for that: Forbes was a producer on the show.

The film expands to include Black women and girls in its address, an update that recalls the most pointed criticism of Coates’ book, written by Howard alum Shani O. Hilton for BuzzFeed, adding “to my daughter” to “to my son.” It’s an admirable gesture, though, without further additions to the text, the effect magnifies Hilton’s original point, which is that the Black male experience is too often regarded as a universal Black experience. Nevertheless, Between the World and Me remains a powerful, timeless work, just as much as James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching chapter in a centurieslong book of struggle, as articulated by a son of “The Mecca.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.