HBO's 'Between the World and Me' is unlike any other TV special in recent memory

Ani Bundel
·4 min read

Disney+ proved there was a real audience for filmed versions of Broadway shows when it shifted “Hamilton” to streaming and wound up with one of the biggest hits of the summer. In the wake of its success, other streamers are rushing to follow suit. Most shows that are already open are unfortunately not in a position to step back onto the stage for filming — many union contracts for live theater are expressly written with the idea that this is art that will not be a repeatable experience. Newer shows, on the other hand, are eager to promote their work ahead of what they hope will, one day, be a grand reopening. Netflix has commissioned the new musical “Diana” to film a staged version for streaming in 2021. HBO brought “American Utopia” straight from Broadway via Spike Lee.

But streaming’s latest offering, a spoken word performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” is something altogether different, both old and new, a combination of film and theater that could only work on TV.

Coates’ New York Times best seller was initially adapted and staged by the Apollo Theater in 2018, and HBO’s project would be directed by Apollo Theater Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes, suggesting the cast would return to the now empty theater to recreate the magic for the millions stuck at home.

And to be honest, that alone probably would have made for an excellent special. The book, initially published in 2015, is framed as a letter to Coates’ 15-year-old son and a reflection on the Black Lives Matter movement from a time (just a few years ago) when the movement was still not accepted by mainstream white culture. The reception to protests in Ferguson was very different than the reception to protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere this year.

But Forbes has gone a step further. Instead of staging the show in a shuttered theater, she took it on the road beginning in August. Actors are seated in dozens of locations, from their homes, to their cars, to their backyards. They shout lines from the streets of Baltimore and the campus of Howard University. Their performances are peppered with historical moments, from Malcom X speeches to the late Chadwick Boseman (who attended Howard at the same time as Coates) addressing Howard’s graduating class of 2018.

Coates’ personal story is thus universalized. Even though the viewer is aware these are stories written by one man, who lived one very singular life, they start to feel shared. Mahershala Ali silently cries as he talks about the experience of falling in love and having a child. Phylicia Rashad takes on a monologue about the death of one of Coates’ college friends, murdered by police. Though these are Coates’ words, from her mouth they take on the emotional tenor of a mother losing her son. Seated in the comfort of her own home, we have a front row seat to grief. Rashad is every Black mother who’s ever woken up to learn her son has been gunned down.

Image: Mahershala Ali (HBO)
Image: Mahershala Ali (HBO)

In between and interspersed throughout these speeches are the expected home movies and photos of Coates’ life, plus some historical reels. Coates’ writing was so prescient that the visual updates from 2015 to 2020 don’t feel like updates at all. We see Amy Cooper dialing 911, and a speech by Breonna Taylor’s mother. Coates may not have known these specific events would happen, but the world continues to live down to his expectations. It can sometimes feel a little on the nose, until you remember when Coates was writing. It’s important to remember that the environment that enabled this administration existed before Trump declared his candidacy.

But what’s truly remarkable, even beyond the performances, is how visual this piece is. It’s practically littered with animations, artwork and countless small details that catch viewers’ eye. This is a version of televisual styling that no live production could have gotten away with, nor would it make much sense in a traditional TV series. “Between the World and Me” has tapped into something that falls in between the two genres, a work all its own, a pandemic-influenced theatrical TV performance that is neither movie nor limited series nor show.

It is, as HBO terms it, a special, in every sense of the word. Special enough that HBO is working to make sure it reaches as wide an audience as possible, available to stream on HBO’s website. Hopefully it will inspire others to similarly explore new ways of telling stories, breaking down traditional artistic boundaries and pushing the creative limits of what we can do during a period when freedom and creativity feels especially precious.