For Director Kamilah Forbes, transforming Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 bestselling nonfiction book, Between the World and Me into an HBO special event was as political as it was personal. Forbes has known Coates since they were both classmates at Howard University, and like the renowned author, she was also friends with the late Prince Carmen Jones. Jones, whose death in the year 2000 informs some of the most distressing parts of the book, is whom the screen adaptation is dedicated to, along with Chadwick Boseman, who died from cancer this past August.
“I felt that I wanted to have a communal experience, I wanted to create a communal experience after reading the book, of how do we illuminate this for as many people at once, like church,” Forbes said.
The executive producer of the Apollo Theater since 2016, Forbes’ idea to bring the book onscreen (it premieres Saturday, November 21, on HBO), was supported by WarnerMedia’s multicultural initiatives to center women and people of color. Alongside Forbes, executive producers like Roger Ross Williams and This Is Us star Susan Kelchi Watson, the latter of whom also stars in the film, are even captured by HBO’s Power of Visibility (POV) which centers the perspectives of creatives behind the camera.
But Forbes first and foremost describes herself as an artist, which is how she approached creating this film following its theatrical production at The Apollo and The Kennedy Center in 2018. Although the coronavirus pandemic interrupted her plans for a national and international tour from which she would have utilized footage to create this special event, she still found a way forward, recasting the emotive textual experience into a visual one, and in so doing, demanding a shift in how the audience receives its soul-stirring impact.
“Something else physiologically, I think, happens when you’re listening to someone’s emotional truth out of another human’s mouth, interpreting the texts with breath, with emotion, with passion, with vulnerability,” Forbes said.
Telling those truths is a star-studded cast which includes the likes of Joe Morton, Angela Bassett and Yara Shahidi as well as the surviving family members of Black people slain by the police, such as Jones’ mother as well as the mother of Breonna Taylor. Unlike the book, in which Coates is addressing his son, Samori, the screen adaptation expands the notion of state violence against Black men to include all Black bodies, regardless of gender.
Beyond this broadening, Forbes hopes the audience understands the work as a testament to young Black people marching against police violence, invites the viewer to examine individual and collective civic participation that will honor and protect Black lives, as well as comprehend the larger story of Black people in this country, four plus centuries on.
“I think that what the film purports to do is really have this conversation of how we have always lived a resilient history, how we have always overcome, how we have always lived within this world, and finding this world…the beautiful struggle,” she said.