When Between the World and Me landed on bookshelves five summers ago, it had just one blurb, from Toni Morrison. The late standard-bearer called Ta-Nehisi Coates’ breakout second book, the follow-up to his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle, “required reading.”
For people all around the world, that’s what it became. Between the World and Me topped the New York Times bestseller list, won a National Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This seminal work about racism in America, framed as a letter to Coates’ son, then 15, has only become more popular and more vital since, as the conversation about whether black lives matter in America has grown louder. Now, it’s set to reach an even wider audience, as a filmed adaptation debuts tomorrow night on HBO and HBO Max (8 PM EST).
Conceived and directed by Apollo Theater executive director Kamilah Forbes — a Coates family friend and fellow Howard University alum — the film features luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Mahershala Ali, Black Thought, and Angela Bassett reading passages from the book. It is dedicated to the late actor Chadwick Boseman, whose moving 2018 Howard commencement speech is included, along with documentary footage from civil rights unrest this summer and even Amy Cooper’s infamous Central Park 9-1-1 call. Crucially, it also adds the voice of Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, speaking in interviews Coates conducted for Vanity Fair about what happened to her slain daughter.
Like the book, the film invites everyone watching to relate to and be intimate with black experiences. It is easy to see how, given Between the World and Me’s transmogrification into a global media phenomenon, some might mistake it as some kind of antacid for American racism and the bile it produces. However, Coates told me during our conversation, “I never thought that my art or what I did was meant to make white people do the right thing.” What was it for, then? “I thought the responsibility of my writing was to let black people know they’re not crazy.”
Coates, who is now at work on a screenplay adaptation of his debut novel The Water Dancer, spoke in-depth about the HBO project, his writing process, the evils of Twitter, life in the Covid era, and much more in the latest edition of our RS Interview: Special Edition.