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'Between the World and Me' review: Meant for the page, but still powerful on the screen

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks during the Celebration of

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks during the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

SPECIAL "Between the World and Me"

WHEN|WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ta-Nehisi Coates' bestseller in the form of a "letter" to his 15-year-old son, Samori — itself homage to James Baldwin's 1963 letter to his nephew from "The Fire Next Time" and written on his 15th birthday because "this was the year [2014] you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes" — was first adapted for the Apollo stage in 2018. This adaptation from the Apollo's executive producer (and Coates' friend) Kamilah Forbes also has readings from stars, including Joe Morton, Angela Bassett, Wendell Pierce, Courtney B. Vance, Jharrel Jerome, Yara Shahidi, Susan Kelechi Watson, Oprah Winfrey and many more. From the book, this special covers Coates' early life growing up on Woodbrock Ave. in Baltimore, his years at Howard University, and the police shooting death of college acquaintance Prince Jones. (His years in Paris are not covered.)

MY SAY Jeremiad as much as memoir, "Between the World and Me" was meant for the page, not for the screen. Toggling between rage and resignation, joy and reflection, not a word, pronouncement or emotion felt inconsequential. A slim book, it often seemed to shoulder the full weight of that titular world. An intensely personal work, it filled the space between father and son with an almost unbearable love. Coates bled on these pages. Nothing could improve upon them.

Nevertheless, the screen version is what we get Saturday, and the limitations — admittedly a paradox at first — are obvious from the outset. There is much here to admire, and many to admire as well. These A-listers lean into their readings, sometimes (Mahershala Ali) cry with them, or versify (Marc Bamuthi Joseph) them. The graphics are gorgeous, and so animated they seem to leap off that screen. None of the book's foundational Black Lives Matter fury is sacrificed, none of its urgency either, although by the time Phylicia Rashad gets around to Prince Jones' mother, Mable — "she was what people once referred to as 'a lady' — you will be on admiration overdrive, approaching emotional overload too.

In fact, the most powerful part of "Between the World and Me" arrives after the program has ended. Yes, that would be after Oprah's climactic reading ("In America it is traditional to destroy the Black body"), after Black Thought's closing remix and the moving tribute to Breonna Taylor and even after Coates' own epilogue urging his son to "struggle for the memory of your ancestors …"

There's silence, then some piano chords, and a black screen, with the hashtag, #saytheir names, followed by a list of dozens, then hundreds killed by police. They roll on and on, a dirge to the fallen and forgotten — forgotten except to those who loved them. Each is a Prince Jones or was. They're also Coates' whole horrifying point, in 60 endless seconds.

In the book he writes that "my great error was not that I had accepted someone else's dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape," adding: "I would not have you descend into your own dreams. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world."

Those words are best read, not heard, but as an alternative — a second best one at that — this HBO adaptation will have to do.

BOTTOM LINE Beautifully done, but ultimately overdone. The book is better.

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