“Between the World and Me” adds the historical details to “The Talk” that Black men like me got when we were growing up. It reveals why that conversation is even necessary. Coates constantly refers to “the Black body” in his text, and I think he means it both in an individual and a community sense. “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body,” he writes, “and you must find some way to live within all of it.” As the author discovered on the journey to social consciousness he shares with his son, this navigation is a constant thread in the lives of Black people. This revelation is a jolt to one’s system, and Coates doesn’t want to soften the blow for his son so much as prepare him for it. Teague includes passages that reflect this intention, read by Joe Morton in what passes for the elder statesman’s role in this film.
One truly infuriating example of how America works differently based on what you look like comes in a recounting of the moment where a White woman on the Upper West Side of Manhattan pushed then five-year-old Samori out of her way because he was not moving fast enough for her. I don’t care what color you are, if you’re a parent worth a damn, your first inclination is murder when someone puts their hands on your kid. Wendell Pierce and Pauletta Washington share the narration here, memorably describing how Coates temporarily forgot he was in “polite company,” as we call it. Understandably returning to his West Baltimore roots in his response, he’s met with the familiar threat from White defenders of the grown woman who assaulted his kid: “I could have you arrested.” Of course, this is immediately followed by people like Amy Cooper doing exactly that, using the cops as personal bodyguards against perceived Black threats.
I’m five years older than Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Between the World and Me” didn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. However, I appreciated it for a number of reasons. When the film showed clips of shows like “The Brady Bunch” and “Leave it to Beaver,” shows I enjoyed as a kid, I considered how TV had sold me the concept of normalcy as being solely a White construct. It’s also resident in how suburban life, middle America and all that nonsense gets crammed down my throat in this era by CNN, the New York Times and other outlets. But I’m also aware, as Coates ultimately deduces for his son, that the struggle continues to make us stronger, and within that struggle, there is a joy and camaraderie that we comprehend and feel in our collective DNA. As Howard University alum Ossie Davis wrote in his play, Purlie Victorious, “being Black can be a lot of fun when ain’t nobody looking.” Though this film is at times heartbreaking in its depiction of how things stubbornly refuse to change, Davis’ notion still peeks through the cracks, offering a bit of sustenance.