“The Talk” — the cautionary conversation that many Black parents have with their children about the realities of racism and police brutality in America — was thrust into the mainstream literary spotlight in 2015 with the publication of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the best-selling and National Book Award-winning epistle addressed to the author’s 15-year-old son.
Part memoir, part history lesson, part life advice and part eulogy, the slim but essential volume debuted a year after the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, making Coates’ extended requiem for a Howard University acquaintance — Prince Jones, also murdered by law enforcement — that much more devastating.
Another Howard classmate, Kamilah Forbes, adapted and directed Between the World and Me for the stage in 2018, distilling the book’s lyrical rage and oracular pithiness. Forbes now brings a version of that Apollo Theater production to HBO, along with many members of the original cast, including Angela Bassett, Joe Morton, Pauletta Washington, Michelle Wilson and Susan Kelechi Watson (who executive produces alongside Coates, Forbes and Roger Ross Williams).
Premiering near the end of a year that saw George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor (whose unseen mother is interviewed by Coates here) slain by police, the film serves as a necessary reminder that the “normal” state of affairs that some voters hope to return to under a Biden presidency is still a grim one for far too many Americans.
Shot in August, with COVID production restraints, the TV adaptation is a worthy screen translation of Coates’ monumental work, with archival footage, original animation and hip-hop tracks lending historical and emotional texture to the author’s words.
Angela Davis is a surprise participant, and having the legendary activist and scholar conjure the long history of Black protest alongside photos of her from the 1970s is a brief but thoroughly moving tribute. Closer to a visual essay than a documentary, with actors in quarantine reciting Coates’ words while often looking straight into the camera, the 79-minute film further enlivens source material that already feels written in blood.
It’s in those recitations that the HBO special occasionally falters. No series made during the pandemic has boasted consistently great acting, and that’s the case here, too. But the sprawling cast — which also includes Mahershala Ali, Phylicia Rashad, Janet Mock, Wendell Pierce, Mj Rodriguez, Yara Shahidi, Jharrel Jerome and Courtney B. Vance, as well as many lesser-known performers — makes sure that the occasional mannered monologue is soon followed by an interpretation that renders Coates’ words something resembling spoken poetry.
Forbes expands Coates’ book from a letter by a father to his son to a more universally Black address — a decision that feels right on paper, but slightly less so in execution. I missed the autobiographical details that led the author to his particular intellectual journey — a sojourn started on the hard-bitten streets of Baltimore, in fear-based fiefdoms that demand a survivalist’s toughness that Coates, as a parent, hopes his child won’t ever have to muster.
Part of the rare power of Coates’ remembrances, too, is the contrast between the constrained world he grew up in and the panoramic one his son will hopefully embrace. That gap between the father and son’s disparate vantage points coming of age is harder to grasp when we’re ensconced in the homes of wealthy actors and the campus of an aspirational Howard, represented here by a glimpse of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Nor can a few changes of the word “son” to “daughter” encompass the enormous intersectional differences between Black men and Black women, or those between cis, straight Black people and their queer counterparts. But these are ultimately quibbles about some incidental dissonant chords amid a complicated symphony of righteous anger, bone-deep agony, searching beauty and the tenderest of love.
The dedication that ends the film — to Jones and to Chadwick Boseman, another Howard alum who appears giving a graduation speech — represents the struggle that Coates tells his child is his heavy legacy and his grave responsibility.
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To understand America, it’s crucial to know how the past of this country isn’t yet past. But it’s just as urgent to understand, Coates argues, what Black people have created, often from nothing. As he himself recites toward the film’s end, “The warmth of our particular world is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable. We have made something down here. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”