Mainstream American television is usually slow in turning its lens on social change. But once TV gets there with its vast resources of money and talent, it can make a huge difference in public education and help to set the agenda for the civic conversation of American life. It’s been that way with race and Black life in America since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police in May.
PBS has been one of the best sources of programming with Frontline documentaries like “Policing the Police 2020,” reported by New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb. Cable and network news stepped up as well with everything from CNN’s “Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism ― A CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall for Kids and Families” to the NBC special “America in Crisis” with anchor Lester Holt in Minneapolis in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
And now comes HBO’s “Between the World and Me,” an adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates' landmark bestselling book, which was previously adapted and staged by the Apollo Theater in 2018. The HBO production premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday. For all the good work that TV has done in recent months on Black life, I can think of nothing that offers the depth, insight and power of this HBO effort. It is not to be missed in this year of racial reckoning.
The talent alone is more than enough reason to watch: Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Wendell Pierce, Joe Morton, Alicia Garza, Angela Davis, Susan Kelechi Watson, Oprah Winfrey, Yara Shahidi, Jharrel Jerome, Courtney B. Vance and others. And you can feel in the intensity and excellence of their performances, as they read passages from Mr. Coates' book, how proud they are to be part of this production.
The book, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son on what it means to be Black in a racist society, is one of the greatest coming-of-age chronicles in American literature.
In so movingly telling the story of his education to the racist realities of American life, Mr. Coates not only offers enlightenment to his son, but to all Americans. I dare any fair-minded white viewer to watch this HBO production and then tell me they didn’t gain at least a little insight and feeling for what it means to be Black in a country where white supremacy still openly exists. During Mr. Coates' formative years, white supremacy did more than openly exist. It ruled in some parts of the land, like in the Baltimore of Mr. Coates’ youth. Much of the inspiration offered by this book comes from the author’s resilience on his journey and the discovery of a voice to articulate his insights to the world on how police brutality is used to enforce that systemic racism.
Great writing doesn’t always adapt easily to TV. But director Kamilah Forbes makes this adaptation feel as rich and deep as the National Book Award winning publication in a number of ways. There is some updating of the work, which was first published in 2015, to include the killing of Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter social justice protests of 2020. Ms. Forbes skillfully uses news footage to make the production feel of the moment.
TV affords the opportunity to incorporate archival and contemporary imagery in ways books and theater cannot. An imaginatively produced stage production can include visual images shown on screens, but there is generally a distance between the screens and many in the audience in a theater, whereas TV is far more intimate, with the audience seated directly in front of the screen and accustomed to taking in its visual language.
The montage Ms. Forbes gives viewers during a portion of the work that discusses Malcolm X offers some of the most evocative still photographs I have ever seen of the civil rights activists. When he first walked onto the campus of Howard University as a student, Mr. Coates wrote of standing in front of Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall “where Muhammad Ali had addressed their fathers and mothers in defiance in the Vietnam War.” Ms. Forbes shows viewers archival footage of Mr. Ali in that honorable and courageous moment to illustrate the excitement and sense of connection to Black history that Mr. Coates felt.
But for all the visual energy of this production, Ms. Forbes knows there is nothing more powerful than Mr. Coates' words and one fine actor after another looking straight into the camera and speaking them. That is the real power and the glory of HBO’s “Between the World and Me.”
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.