New HBO Program 'Special, in Every Sense of the Word'

NBC's Ani Bundel reviews spoken-word adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Between the World and Me'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 24, 2020 7:33 AM CST
HBO's Ta-Nehisi Coates Special: a Personal Story 'Universalized'
A screenshot of Ta-Nehisi Coates from the trailer of "Between the World and Me."   (YouTube/HBO)

A new streaming special is definitely "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." So writes cultural critic Ani Bundel for NBC News of Between the World and Me, a "pandemic-influenced theatrical TV performance" based on the 2015 novel by author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates' New York Times bestseller, written in the form of a letter to his teen son, looks back on the author's upbringing in Baltimore's inner city and reflects on the current Black Lives Matter movement, all against the backdrop of a US that Coates asserts structurally maintains white supremacy. The book was adapted in 2018 for the stage at Harlem's Apollo Theater, and Kamilah Forbes, executive producer for the Apollo, is at the helm as director of this HBO project.

That on its own is enough to make it worth a watch, Bundel writes, but it's how Forbes put together the spoken-word performances—interspersed with historical clips, as well as photos and home movies from Coates' own life—that truly elevates the program. She traveled across the US to visit such actors as Mahershala Ali, Phylicia Rashad, and Oprah Winfrey, who read Coates' words as if they were their own. "Coates' personal story is thus universalized," Bundel writes. "Even though the viewer is aware these are stories written by one man, who lived one very singular life, they start to feel shared." She adds: "This is a version of televisual styling that no live production could have gotten away with," citing "countless small details that catch viewers' eye." Check out Bundel's full piece here (and the official HBO trailer), as well as a plethora of other reviews. Coates also speaks about the adaptation with NPR. (More Ta-Nehisi Coates stories.)

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