Between The World And Me Might Be Triggering At Times, But Director Kamilah Forbes Hopes It Inspires You, Too
Five years ago, author and journalist Ta-Nehesi Coates published Between the World and Me, a sobering recollection of the United States' history of white supremacy and anti-Blackness as told by a father to his teenage son. In the book, Coates warns that the stakes of being Black in America are often a matter of life and death. In the United States, Blackness is too often seen as a threat and treated like a curse. But don't let the rampant racism fool you — being Black is nothing short of a gift that is to be celebrated.
We need to look no further than the turmoil and chaos of 2020 to see how Black people have been treated. Over the course of the last 12 months, almost a thousand Black people have lost their lives to police violence, and many of those deaths have yet to receive the justice they deserve. The events of this year have only amplified much of the country's consciousness when it comes to race relations. Our entire summer was marked by an uptick of nationwide civil protests for Black lives and, unfortunately, an increase in police brutality against Black and brown bodies as well.
Fighting the good fight against white supremacy is hard enough as a community, but when you're as isolated as so many of us are now, it can feel like an unsurmountable herculean task.
These current events are what inspired HBO's adaptation of Between the World and Me, says collaborator, director, and Coates' fellow Howard University alum Kamilah Forbes. Though the book it's based on was penned years ago, its subject matter clearly still rings true, and interpersonal and systemic racism are still at work. Filmed at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept that world, the project was initially borne out of Forbes' desire to speak to the state of the culture that we're seeing today — Black people living in what scholar Saidiya Hartman calls the "after-life of slavery."
The latest iteration of the New York Times best-seller artfully pieces together the history and established culture of American anti-Blackness by creating a visual timeline that intertwines both past and present. The team behind Between the World and Me (impressively composed mostly of women of colour) spent hours upon hours weaving together a stunning collection of archived photos and videos with modern footage to demonstrate the pervasiveness of racism in this country. We see everything from shots of 1960s sit-ins to cell phone-captured clips from local protests.
"It was so important that this conversation didn't stop where [Between the World and Me] ended in 2015 with Prince Jones, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin," explained Forbes in a phone conversation with Refinery29. "We wanted the film to have that 2020 marker so that it could be timely. But we also really needed it to be timeless."
Coates' words are brought to life by an all-star cast of some of Black Hollywood's most famous faces. Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, Mahershala Ali, and Yara Shahidi are just some of the stars who lent their thespian skills to the adaptation. Thanks to COVID-19, many of the actors had to be filmed virtually, adding a layer of too-close-to-home nuance to the project. During one of the most emotionally trying years in recent history, Black people haven't even been able to commiserate or lean on each other in the typical ways that we have in the past because of the pandemic. When delivered via Zoom call or FaceTime, in a bedroom or car, the words of the Kirkus Prize-winning author just hit differently. Fighting the good fight against white supremacy is hard enough as a community, but when you're as isolated as so many of us are now, it can feel like an unsurmountable herculean task.
The film is the latest project in HBO's Power of Visibility (POV) initiative, aimed at amplifying the work and unique creative processes of women and people of colour within the TV/film industry. HBO and WarnerMedia know just how nuanced stories like Between the World and Me are to the progress of our society, and they intend to be on the front lines of the movement to present diverse narratives.
"Between The World And Me is an incredibly poignant project — not only because Kamilah Forbes has brought the relevant, powerful, and timely work of Ta-Nehisi Coates to life through the highest calibre of talent, but also because of the enormous feat involved in beautifully capturing the special under the restrictions presented by COVID," said Jackie Gagne, WarnerMedia's SVP of Multicultural Marketing.
Forbes knows that the HBO film isn't exactly the easiest watch, especially after the year that we've had, but the director hopes that viewers will find it as inspiring as it may be triggering. Anti-blackness is very real, but so are Black excellence, Black joy, Black pride, and Black resilience. Though the odds against us are often stacked to the ceiling, Black people continue to press forward and shape the societies that we live in.
"We made this as a visual love song [to the Black community]," shared Forbes. "Even through struggles and pain, there is resiliency, joy, and beauty to be found. That's really our resounding, overarching message, not even just to the Black community, but to all. It's about how we celebrate our humanity, even amongst some of the most devastating and painful moments throughout history. That's how we've always survived."
"It's through the struggle that a brilliant and beautiful group of people that has defined global culture springs up, and there's something truly profound about that," the director concluded proudly. "I know the book definitely relayed that message, and I hope the film will also be able to convey that too."
Between the World and Me is now available to be streamed on-demand via participating partners all weekend.