WQCS Header Background Image
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

HBO Adapts Ta-Nehisi Coates' Best-Selling Book Into A Movie

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

HBO is out with its adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates' best-selling book "Between The World And Me." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it's a story of Black survival within white supremacy.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Here is the true magic of acting - when a master performer turns a finely tuned script into a powerful personal experience. Consider Joe Morton delivering these lines from the very first chapter of "Between The World And Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

JOE MORTON: (Reading) Son, I'm telling you this in your 15th year. I'm telling you because this is the year that you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes. You know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot for browsing a department store.

DEGGANS: Like the book, HBO's spellbinding film begins as a message from the author to his young son, a talk that too many parents of color must have these days. Here, Morton describes the boy crying after learning that the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., escaped prosecution.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

MORTON: (Reading) I did not tell you that it would be OK because I never have believed that it would be OK. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me, that this is your body and that you must find some way to live within the all of it.

DEGGANS: Living with all of it is an apt description for the message of "Between The World And Me." It alternates between observation and instruction on surviving the all of being Black in a world that seeks to dominate and often extinguish Black bodies. The film unfolds like a tone poem - dreamily lyrical in some moments and brutally vivid in others. It features archival footage of icons like Angela Davis protesting the Vietnam War...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

ANGELA DAVIS: I just want to know what war people out here are celebrating. What is there to celebrate?

DEGGANS: ..And connects with images of Davis speaking in the now, reading Coates' words about his skepticism of grade school lessons on the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

DAVIS: (Reading) I sense the schools were drugging us with false morality. Why were only our heroes nonviolent?

DEGGANS: Director Kamilah Forbes also developed a stage production of Coates' book for the Apollo Theater in 2018, and she delivers a visual masterpiece here. Clips from "The Brady Bunch" outline the mythical promise of suburbia; footage of Amy Cooper lying to a 911 operator about a Black man threatening her in Central Park shows the unexpected dangers. As the film turns to Coates' writing on Prince Carmen Jones, a Howard University student killed by police, Phylicia Rashad reads the words of his mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

PHYLICIA RASHAD: (Reading) When he turned 23, I bought him a Jeep with a big purple bow on it, and I can still see him there saying, thank you, Mom. And that was the Jeep he was killed in.

DEGGANS: And then comes Oprah Winfrey, delivering what feels like the film's mission statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

OPRAH WINFREY: (Reading) Here's what I'd like for you to know. In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body. It is heritage. There is no uplifting way to say this.

DEGGANS: HBO's "Between The World And Me" is a meditation on the stubborn spirit of a people who thrive in a world too often determined to erase them. It's a fitting resource in a year where names like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have forced us to seek out Coates' wisdom yet again. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK THOUGHT AND LEDISI'S "AMERICAN HEARTBREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.