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The wounds of racism, the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates in a powerfully told ‘Between the World and Me’

Oprah Winfrey is among the notables who speak Ta-Nehisi Coates's words in the HBO special "Between the World and Me."
Oprah Winfrey is among the notables who speak Ta-Nehisi Coates's words in the HBO special "Between the World and Me."HBO

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 bestseller “Between the World and Me” is, among other things, a memoir, a history lesson, a lament for lives lost, and a letter to his son, Samori, then in his 15th year. Now, as an HBO movie of sorts, the adaptation is equally hard to categorize, and all the better for it. In the hands of director Kamilah Forbes, who previously adapted the book for a 2018 stage production at the Apollo Theater, the HBO version is a gorgeously sorrowful prose poem about being Black in America, then and now. It hits you in your head but mostly your heart, as it blends together emotional readings from Coates’s book, archival clips of the Black experience in America, a searching soundtrack that breaks into hip-hop songs, sequences of animation and watercolors, and other ambient devices. It’s not a documentary, or a staged recitation, or a music video; it’s all of them and more.

Forbes captures the meditation-like quality of Coates’s book, and the list of Black notables who speak his words onscreen — including Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Angela Davis, Susan Kelechi Watson, Mj Rodriguez, Oprah Winfrey, Jharrel Jerome, Wendell Pierce — do so with nuanced anger, rage, fear, disbelief, grief, and hard-won wisdom. Many of the more lyrical lines they deliver linger hauntingly in the air throughout — “If you’re Black you were born in jail,” for example, and, to Coates’s son, “The struggle is all I have for you.” The adaptation was filmed in August under COVID protocols, so the performers are looking straight into the camera or shown from the side as they speak, often from their homes — a limitation that is, in some ways, a strength, as it keeps the focus on the words, the voices, and the eyes. It’s the kind of intimate, still context you might expect at a poetry reading.


Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi CoatesElias Williams For The Washington Post

HBO’s “Between the World and Me,” which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m., repeatedly returns to the theme of police violence against unarmed Black people, almost like an end rhyme. The story of how Coates’s Howard University schoolmate Prince Jones was killed by the police, who fired 16 shots at him, serves as a centerpiece, including a scene featuring Phylicia Rashad in the role of Jones’s mother, responding to questions about Prince. “It was extremely physically painful,” she says of coping with his death, Rashad revealing boundless agony with the slight quivering of her lips. “He had a family,” she says, “he was living like a human being, and one racist act took him back.” In a watercolor montage earlier in the HBO show, we see a hand drawing scenes of Black life — one of which gets spattered with red, the blood of so much hatred.


When he wrote the book, Coates used names such as Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, along with Jones, to talk about police violence; now, in the adaptation, other names are spoken, too. The timeliness of his book has not abated. One of the most excruciating scenes shows cast members reacting to a recording of Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville cops in March. As Palmer talks about the many hours she spent at the hospital and out in the cold, waiting to find out what happened to her daughter, unaware she was dead, each of the performers listens silently, Bassett shaking her head, Ali shedding a single tear. It’s chilling. The disrespect, the breakability, and much worse, of Black bodies by white America — “how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold” — is a persistent theme.


The celebrity readers are not all men, obviously, and that opens up the voice of the book, to some extent making the movie into more of a collective cry. Seeing Rodriguez, who is trans, sitting terrified at the wheel of a car after being pulled over by the police, adds extra layers to Coates’s own story of “driving while Black” in his hometown of Baltimore. Likewise, pictures of Coates and his son are interspersed with photos of other Black families, to gesture outward, to broaden everything we hear. It works, even while it takes away some of the personal and specific nature of Coates’s book. It brings a sense of community to the segments about the women in Coates’s life, and his own time at the “mecca” of Howard University (which features a rousing clip of the late Chadwick Boseman giving a graduation speech that ends with, “I love you Howard, Howard forever”). Coates himself only appears toward the conclusion of the movie, addressing his son in a powerful bookend that’s labeled “A Final Wisdom.”

“They made us into a race,” he says, unforgettably. “We made ourselves into a people.”


Starring: Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Angela Davis, Susan Kelechi Watson, Oprah Winfrey, Jharrel Jerome, Mj Rodriguez, Wendell Pierce, Phylicia Rashad, Kendrick Sampson, Yara Shahidi, Courtney B. Vance, Pauletta Washington


On: HBO. Premieres Saturday at 8 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.