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A Conversation With Director Of HBO's 'Between The World And Me' Adaptation

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And finally today, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his bestselling book "Between The World And Me" as a letter about the cruelties of racism to his 15-year-old son. That book now comes to life in a new television special.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SPECIAL, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Dear son, I'm telling you this in your 15th year.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Son.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Dear son.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Dear brothers.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Nephew, I'm telling you this in your 15th year.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I'm telling you this is your 15th year.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) I'm telling you this in your 15th year.

FADEL: "Between The World And Me" uses Black star power to narrate stories of joy, loss and police violence to illustrate the beauty and the struggle of the Black experience in America. It's directed by Kamilah Forbes. She's the executive producer for the Apollo Theater, where she first brought the book to stage in 2018. And she's here with us now.

Kamilah Forbes, welcome.

KAMILAH FORBES: Hey, thank you. Thank you so much for having me on.

FADEL: Do you remember when you first read the book? And was that when you were thinking, OK, this has to be seen?

FORBES: Totally. I remember the place. I remember the time. I was in D.C. working on a project, and I was in a hotel room, and so I was away from my family. And I read it in one night and just cried and went through all of the emotions - laughter, pride, joy, exuberance, like, despair - all of the emotions - heartbreak. And I kept thinking - you know, I think the theater maker in me was, like, I wanted to have this experience in the safety of others (laughter).

I mean, that's how I see theater. That's how I see communal experiences like church, you know? There's a different level of depth that you reach when you are in a group of people all experiencing this moment of catharsis, of joy, of heartbreak, of celebration together. And I wanted that. I wanted that with reading Ta-Nehisi's language, with wrestling with the ideas and the concepts that he, you know, forces us to reckon with. So I always thought about it in a group, in a theater.

FADEL: How did bringing this to life on film differ from doing it on stage? Is there one medium that you think is more conducive to telling the story?

FORBES: Both of the mediums, I think, has their strong suits, right? They're completely different mediums. So when I think about stage, it was really about the language and, you know, the live score, which we had Jason Moran and two other brilliant musicians. So it was about the visual spectacle, the live spectacle, the interplay between the performer and the language really being lifted in such a way.

With film, it's much more nuance. It's about the silences, even more so than in - on the stage. It's also about, you know, how we can use other visuals, archival textures, home video, art, transitions in more of the quieter spaces and also more of the quieter spaces to help to tell that story.

I think with the actors, it's also - you know, I was really interested in their personal lives. I mean, we were able to shoot some of the actors in their own homes. So there was a different sense of comfortability, and that's what we wanted to get throughout the film, and shooting in their homes, hence the style of shooting, the intimacy of shooting. And I think that really did come across. So I think they're two totally different mediums that we try to lean into.

FADEL: You highlight Howard University. It plays a prominent role in the film. Howard is, of course, historically Black University, an HBCU, located in Washington, D.C. And it's known for its long list of prominent alumni - Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, yourself, Coates among the alumni. Let's listen to a clip from that film.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SPECIAL "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) I was admitted to Howard University but formed and shaped by the Mecca. Now, these institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education concerned with the LSAT, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. The Mecca is a machine crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energies of all African peoples and inject them directly into the student body.

FADEL: So this part of the film's really dynamic. It takes place on the campus. It feels like a guided tour of Howard and what it means to the Black community. Can you talk about what you wanted to depict about this campus and how you brought it together?

FORBES: The language does so much for us. The language brings so much to life. And I love what you just said. The idea of a guided tour was exactly it. When I read it, it felt like I was walking from one end to the next and seeing all of the images that he described, whether it was a ball (unintelligible) or the California girls, you know, turned Muslim, you know?

This opportunity of, like, awakening of identity that happened at Howard but also that happens, I think, to young people around that age - but for Black people, really becoming this safe haven of exploring your identity in - that is unlike no other in America where, you know, your culture is not the dominant. But on Howard, it is.

FADEL: The film frames struggle as a part of Black life, but not the only thing about Black life. But we're speaking at the end of a really difficult year for everyone, but especially Black people, the coronavirus disproportionately impacting Black communities, resurgence of protests against systemic racism, which, of course, resulted from a number of Black people being killed or injured by law enforcement - George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, others.

I want get more of your thoughts on what you want this film to offer at this moment. What do you want people to take from it to reflect on?

FORBES: This struggle is unfortunately one that we are all too familiar with. But yet, in spite of that, there has been such beauty and joy and a culture that has been created that is so incredibly profound, so much so that it has informed global culture.

So that is - that, I think, is really the underbelly of it all because I think that, you know, so often we don't get to have those spaces for the opportunity to reckon with our mourn and pain while at the same breath celebrate our joys.

FADEL: Thank you so much. That's Kamilah Forbes. She's the director of the HBO special "Between The World And Me," which is available now. She's also the executive producer for the Apollo Theater.

Thank you so much for joining us.

FORBES: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.