Published in July 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me earned nothing but critical acclaim. In fact, legendary novelist Toni Morrison publicly heralded the book as filling an intellectual gap in succession to James Baldwin. The book is a powerful retrospective on being Black in America. While several of these sorts of works exist, Coates’ story separates itself by taking the shape of a letter to the author’s 15-year-old son. As a result, readers felt the urgency of a father desperate to prepare his child for the world that awaits him. Dripping in realism, the book won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
However, a stage adaptation in 2018 by the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York immortalized the book. Taking the words from the page to the stage allowed theatergoers to elicit real emotion as the story unfolded before them. In that same vein, HBO acquired the rights to Between the World and Me and assembled a cast of recognizable and iconic Black personalities to tell the tale. Among them are Oprah Winfrey, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Davis, Mahershala Ali, Joe Morton, Yara Shahidi, and Angela Bassett. Throughout its 80-minute runtime, the television special is equal parts heartbreaking and educational. Being Black in America is an ongoing battle that only those who experience it will ever truly understand.
Through the recollection of Coates’ upbringing, one notion remains clear: this is a man who was always on high alert. Thankfully, this storyteller lives through a bevy of life-staking ordeals and run-ins with violent police officers and unruly peers. However, one thing this quasi-documentary refuses to shy away from is Black pride. The story weaves in and out of celebrations and the communal feeling of being Black among Black confidants and portrays historically Black colleges and universities in a light not often seen on a platform such as HBO. Coates’ time at Howard University reminds the viewers of the diverse community surrounding the nation’s capital. Affectionately referred to as The Mecca, this community serves as the launching pad for Black intellectuals.
Safe to create their own path with support from like-minded associates, it paints a portrait of a version of America. And then, Prince Carmen Jones dies at the hands of a Prince George’s County, Maryland police officer. A new portrait of this version of America’s opposition is swift and sudden. This letter, an ode to the Black American experience, instantaneously evolves into a warning to the author’s 15-year-old son about the control of one’s body.
Thanks to visceral performances from award-winners like Wendell Pierce, Courtney B. Vance, Pauletta Washington, Greg Alverez Reid, and T.I., the shift in tone from hopeful and celebratory transforms into the ugly truth that Americans have consistently been faced with. Police have a documented history of crucifying Black Americans with little regard to the value of their lives. In 2015, names like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner were the victims of such reckless hate. However, through the lens of 2020, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery are profiled and honored. Perhaps the most powerful moment of Between the World and Me is a recording of Coates’ interview with Breonna Taylor’s mother. This account of a mother’s disorientation as police toy with her emotions, knowing full well her child’s blood dries on their hands is enough to break the viewer down to tears.
Ta-Nehisi Coates sees white supremacy as an indestructible force. One that Black Americans will never evade or erase, but will always struggle against. The worlds of white and Black Americans are separated by an invisible force, an ongoing battle. However, his plea to his 15-year-old son is to live life the way he sees fit. Despite the savage onslaught of those who would wish to take control of the Black body, the Black body endures. However, the rules remain the same in 2021 as they were when Coates was growing up.
With performers unafraid to give all they have and an author refusing to dial down his awareness of his surroundings, Between the World and Me serves as a poignant and relevant reminder of the tragedy that creates the foundation on which the United States of America thrives. – Christian Hubbard
Between the World and Me is available to stream now on HBO Max.
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