About 15 minutes into the HBO film adaptation of “Between The World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates best-selling 2015 book framed as a letter to his son about what it means to be Black in America,
Susan Kelechi Watson, who portrays Beth Pearson in “This Is Us,” walks across the campus of Howard University, describing the life there. “The Black world was expanding before me, and I could see that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are White,” she says.
Now it’s a fact that Watson attended Howard, but the words she is speaking are Coates’. So too is Mahershala Ali speaking Coates’ words, when he tells the story of meeting the Howard classmate who would become his wife (“Nothing between us was ever planned— not even you. We’d summoned you out of ourselves”); and Kendrick Sampson and MJ Rodriguez when they separately talk about the killing of Coates’ Howard classmate, Prince Carmen Jones, by a police officer from the notorious police force of nearby Prince George’s County, which was the impetus, Coates has said, for writing his book in the first place.
The matchup between performer and passage is often inspired: Phylicia Rashad portrays Prince Jones’ mother who Coates interviewed for his book. But there is a cumulative effect of Coates’ words being performed by this huge starry cast – which also includes Angela Bassett, Jharrel Jerome, Joe Morton, Wendell Pierce, Oprah Winfrey and more than a dozen more — that is greater than any specific thought it articulates or moment that it illuminates. Together, they are saying: This is us. This is the way Black people live in America.
The movie had its origins in an equally starry staged reading from the book at the Apollo Theater in 2018, which was put together by the Apollo Theater’s Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes, and later appeared at The Kennedy Center. Forbes has now translated the concept to the screen. There are no scenes from the theater piece in the HBO film, although the whole thing was recorded, and indeed excerpted in HBO’s 2019 documentary “The Apollo,” which was directed by Roger Ross Williams (now one of the executive producers of “Between the World and Me.”) The performers now say the words from their own homes, or from sometimes dramatic locations – the front of a car with flashing lights visible in the rear window. In-between and on top of those words, are a visual pile-on of rapid-fire animation and old clips and historical photographs.
The result is an 80-minute visual essay that is, in a general sense, theatrical – it moves us to empathy. But the only direct connection to theater evident on the screen now is a glimpse of the Ira Aldridge Theater – named after a great Shakespearean actor of the 19th century – that Watson passed by on the campus of Howard University.
“Between the World and Me” is available on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.