Karla Peterson: HBO's 'Between the World and Me' is a painful and poetic look at racism in America

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Honoree, Author Ta-Nehisi Coates attends Gordon Parks Foundation: 2018 Awards Dinner & Auction at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 22, 2018 in New York City. - Bennett Raglin/Getty Images North America/TNS

The new HBO film based on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book “Between the World and Me” is so informed by our current moment that its crew includes a COVID-19 production manager. It is so plugged in to 2020 that it features footage from the Black Lives Matter protests that engulfed America in May after the death of George Floyd. It is so current, it includes Coates’ interview with the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers during a botched raid on her apartment.

Coates’ book was written in the wake of the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, all Black men shot and killed by police officers. And like the book, HBO’s timely film makes it painfully clear that while the outrage is fresh, the source stretches back centuries. And in the film, which debuts Saturday, the evils new and old are brought to fierce, grief-stricken life by members of an all-star cast who speak from their hearts, even while they were filmed in quarantine.

Like the book, the film takes the form of a letter. The book was addressed to Coates’ teenage son, Samori, as he was getting to the age where Black boys become targets. Coates connects the violence inflicted on Black bodies by police officers and police dogs and weaponized civilians to the violent exploitation of Black bodies through slavery. The bodies that gave America its tobacco, cotton and sugar belonged to people who were rewarded with segregation, voter suppression and death.

The film addresses the same message to all Black Americans. To sons and daughters. To nephews and brothers. To the living, with wisdom from the dead.

“This is your country and your body,” actor Joe Morton says into the camera. “And you must find some way to live in the all of it.”

Living in the “all of it” is also the message that “Between the World and Me” sends out to all of America. This is who we were. In too many ways, this is who we still are. And you can’t change the present if you do not take an unflinching look at the past.

The HBO film was directed by Coates’ friend and fellow Howard University grad Kamilah Forbes, who staged a theatrical version of the book at the famed Apollo Theater in 2018. The film features some of the same actors — including Morton, Angela Bassett and Susan Kelechi Watson of “This Is Us.” There are also pivotal appearances from Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”), Phylicia Rashad, Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”), Yara Shahidi (“Black-ish”) and Oprah Winfrey.

The cast is stellar, which is good, because the strength of the film rests on the actors’ ability to look into the camera and read Coates’ words to us. Forbes weaves in archival photos, documentary footage, home movies and animation, giving “Between the World and Me” a beautiful fluidity that makes it look and feel like so much more than a reading staged during a quarantine. But in the end, it’s the words that matter. And even when the actors are speaking from the sunlit comfort of their gorgeous homes, they give these stories of new wounds and ancient scars an emotional power that lodge Coates’ words under your skin, where they will likely disturb and discomfort you for a long time.

Highlights include Jharrel Jerome and Bassett taking turns unpacking “the Dream,” which is what Coates calls the white-picket promise of the suburbs. This world of treehouses and Cub Scouts is very far away from the treacherous streets of Baltimore, where Coates grew up forever on guard and always aware that he could be erased at any time. This dream world was not an option for Coates and boys like him. Boys like his son.

There is also a stunning duet of sorts between young Shahidi and the 76-year-old activist Angela Davis, who share Coates’ outraged accounting of the Martin Luther King Day history lessons from his childhood. Lessons that came with a parade of gut-punch images that made the blood sacrifices of civil rights protestors seem like the price a Black boy or girl was expected to pay for the right to exist.

There is also a tremendous performance from Rashad as the mother of Prince Jones, a Howard University classmate of Coates’ who was shot and killed 20 years ago in Virginia by a Black undercover police officer. In the poised, measured tones of the doctor Prince’s mother was, Rashad remembers giving her travel-loving son a Jeep for his 23rd birthday. It was the Jeep he was killed in.

When Samori is born, Coates is overcome with awe and dread. Awe because he loves his son so much, and dread because he knows that this love cannot protect him. The two emotions collide in the story of how a father-and-son trip to an Upper West Side movie theater almost turns tragic when a White woman pushes Coates’ son on the escalator and things go very wrong very quickly.

But not as wrong as they could have, which is a horror all its own.

“I am not ashamed of being a bad father,” Pierce says, his eyes both full and empty at the same time. “I am ashamed that I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more.”

In that simple story of a man taking his son to the movies, “Between the World and Me” reminds us that the cost of living in America is not the same for everyone. We are reminded that the unequal pay scale was set when Black bodies were deemed expendable, and it has yet to even out. Errors do not exact the same penalties. Neither do traffic stops. Or walking to your dad’s fiancee’s house with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of juice.

But there is joy to be found in Coates’ stories. There is the life-affirming energy of Howard University, which we can feel when Watson strolls the grounds recounting Coates’ wonder at seeing endless variations on Black life, all on one thriving campus. There are the jolts of beauty and insight that come from the women Coates met and loved at Howard, including Kenyatta Matthews, the woman who would become his wife.

And when Coates tells the story of taking his son to homecoming at Howard, the joy of living in a world where he can just be informs the film’s final message:

Like your body, your country belongs to you. All of it.

“The warmth of our particular world is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable,” Coates says into the camera. “We made something down here. They made us a race. We made ourselves into a people.”


“Between the World and Me” premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.


(Karla Peterson is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)


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