Between the World and Me 

The words of Ta-Nehisi Coates come alive.

Since Kenneth Arnold saw mysterious objects in the skies over Mt. Rainier Washington in 1947, people have been scanning the horizon for UFOs. The alien spaceships were there in the skies over America, we thought, for the better part of 60 years, but actual photographs of flying saucers were rare because not everybody was carrying a camera all the time.

Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the election of Barack Obama in 2008, racism has diminished in America, we thought. Arbitrary police violence directed toward Black people was a thing of the past, we thought. It was something Bull Conner did in Jim Crow Alabama, not something that happened in 21st-century America. Sure, every now and then we'd hear about a Black guy getting shot by police, but they probably did something to deserve it. Besides, it's not like we had videos of police brutality.

click to enlarge In Kamilah Forbes’ adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a host of actors, like Oprah Winfrey (above), bring the script to life.
  • In Kamilah Forbes’ adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a host of actors, like Oprah Winfrey (above), bring the script to life.

The year before Barack Obama was elected, Apple introduced the iPhone. Since then, smartphone technology has exploded across the globe. More than 2.2 billion iPhones of increasing sophistication have been sold, joined by at least that many Android devices. The latest iPhone has a minimum of three cameras onboard, which means now practically everyone does have a camera in their pocket, capable of recording 4K video and streaming it to the internet in real time.

And what has this technological revolution revealed? Clear images of UFOs are still rare as hens' teeth, but a new video of police killing and brutalizing Black people rockets across the internet every few weeks.

click to enlarge film_betweentheworldandme1_copy.jpg

If the annus horribilis of 2020 has any value going forward, I hope it will be remembered as the year we shed our rose-colored glasses of American exceptionalism. The summer of Black Lives Matter was enabled by the imagination of the son of a Syrian immigrant, but it was the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates that gave the protest movement its intellectual underpinnings. Between the World and Me was written in 2015 as a letter to Coates' son, Samori, who was named for an Algerian freedom fighter who dedicated his life to trying to throw off French colonial rule.

"I'm telling you this in your 15th year," it begins. The book is a memoir in the form of the "talk" Black parents give their teenage sons to tell them that they must keep their noses clean and their conduct above reproach to try and avoid the worst abuses of racism — not that that is enough to guarantee their safety. "I did not tell you it would be okay, because I did not believe it would be okay," writes Coates.

The 2015 National Book Award winner was first adapted for the stage at Harlem's fabled Apollo Theater by Kamilah Forbes in 2018. Then, in August 2020, in the heat of BLM summer, she directed a film adaptation for HBO. Between the World and Me is in no way a conventional movie. It is a spoken-word piece with visual accompaniment; its closest antecedent is probably one of Agnès Varda's essay films, like Faces Places. There are montages, archival footage, and animation, but the point of the thing is Coates' prose, which carries the same KJV rhythms as the language of the Black church. Instead of just having Coates read to us, the words are brought to life by a host of actors, including Oprah Winfrey, Phylicia Rashad, Mahershala Ali, and Angela Bassett. The late Chadwick Boseman, who attended Howard University with the author and collaborated on a play with the director, is seen giving a commencement address to his alma mater in 2018.

Howard, which Coates calls "The Mecca," plays a big part in the psychic universe of the film. Not only did Coates meet his son's mother there when he passed her a blunt at a college party, but he attributes his spiritual and intellectual awakening to his time at the HBC. After growing up in the poor neighborhoods of West Baltimore, Coates says his experiences at the school proved to him that "the African diaspora is cosmopolitan."

Howard also becomes the locus of Coates' radicalization when one of his friends, Prince Carmen Jones, is shot and killed by police while driving to his fiancé's house. Coates uses the incident to drive home the message to his son that "... there are awful men who have laid plans for you."

The writer has James Baldwin's gift for summing up complex social concepts with a memorable phrase. He explains the appeal of racism to white people with "A mountain is not a mountain without something below." He implores his son to not measure himself by the standards of racist society, but to forge his own path and identity. But he also leans strongly on what he calls "the American expectation of fairness." Far from what Coates' critics would like you to believe, this is not a call for tribalism and cultural isolation, but instead a plea to rework the very foundations of the American identity. As you watch Oprah weep while she listens to an interview with Breonna Taylor's mother, you'll think, it's about damn time.

Between the World and Me is showing on HBO.

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