Director Kamilah Forbes on HBO’s “Between the World and Me” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, March 6th, 2021  

Director Kamilah Forbes on HBO’s “Between the World and Me”

Black In America

Jan 21, 2021 Web Exclusive
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If you live in America, chances are you’ve heard of the writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his seminal 2015 book, Between the World and Me. The work, which is written as a letter to Coates’ then-15-year-old son, talks about the atrocities Black Americans have been made to endure throughout history in the United States. The genius of the book is its concision and its masterful use of language. In one moment, we’re dancing with a new love on a college campus. In another, we’re witnessing police brutality and murder a few blocks away. Coates has since won several major awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant. 

This winter, HBO released a film based on the book, which was directed and produced by the acclaimed Kamilah Forbes, who first produced the work at the historic Apollo Theater in New York City. Forbes and Coates were friends at Howard University in Washington D.C. It was there a fruitful friendship formed. We caught up with her to ask what it was like to bring the book to life first on stage and then on screen, the emotions she felt doing so and how she first came to love creativity. 

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first realize you wanted to live a creative life? 

Kamilah Forbes: I want to say when I was very young. I think the idea of building creative worlds really excited me and by “young” I man, like, grade school. My parents took me to a lot of plays growing up. I was in piano lessons. I participated in school theater in grade school and in high school. And I was really enthralled by it. And I think then was really the time where—you know, at that point you don’t really know is ahead of you in your life. But I definitely knew then that was a world in which I wanted to spend a lot more time in and learn about and swim in. 

Where were you born and how did creative influences find you and filter in early on?

I was born in Chicago and I grew up right outside of Chicago, in a suburb called Oak Park. My parents are Caribbean. So, growing obviously was in Chicago and we spent a lot of summers and time in Jamaica with my family there. But I think, you know, culture was instilled by my family and the importance and beauty of it. Whether it was going to museums or, like I said, going to plays and talking about them and just being fully immersed. That was probably the beginning. I always remember—I have a fondness in my heart for the musical, Once On This Island, because that was just a real turning point for me. Seeing a young Black girl on stage who mirrored me with a similar experiences being from the Caribbean, there were similar sounds that I heard coming from the stage, coming from the musicians and the performers. And I knew that was a world that—seeing yourself reflected really, I think, is something that was really fortifying. And that being even that much more magical, right? Seeing your story, your narrative, or something very familiar to you, on stage. 

You and Ta-Nehisi Coates became friends in college at Howard University. Do you remember how you first met?

It must have been ’94, it was my freshman year. I was part of a committee producing events on campus and we were doing an event called The Rhythm & Poetry Cypher and he was one of the performers, as a poet. He was our featured performer. That’s when we first met and I guess that was the first creative collaboration. But then we have a lot of similar friends. We ran in the same circles and really became close friends through college and then after college. We reached New York around the same time, as well. All of our friendship bonds just continued to grow. 

I didn’t know he was a poet! Was he good?

He was really good! And I was always impressed by his writing. But he was also a journalist, he wrote on the school paper, he was a history major. It’s funny how you see those versions of our 18-year-old selves and how they continue to carry over, you know, 25-30 years later. It’s just who we are. His sense of history and journalism obviously are very much connected, as is a love of language. I think I was—as we all are—really enthralled by his writing then and now. 

Do you remember the first time you read the book and if there was a moment or passage that particularly stuck out? 

It was the summer of 2015, right before the book came out. It was this overwhelming feeling of catharsis. There wasn’t one particular emotion that I felt. It was joy, it was pride, it was devastation. I felt like I was cut open and renewed all at the same time when I read the book. I think I had never really had that kind of an overwhelming experience with one piece of work. And an urgency, right? With one piece of work. I think that’s what made me feel like Whoa, there’s really something here. I was just really taken by the whole thing. But that I very much remember. 

When you were presented with the opportunity, what was your first instinct for how to portray the work on stage or on screen?

Well, number one, the language was something that was so incredibly beautiful. You know, how he rendered our world. How he rendered the world around us was something that was just incredibly stunning. So, you know, I knew it was never an adaptation of language, do you know what I mean? It wasn’t something to be “inspired by the writing of”—so, there was that. I guess I wanted to start there and then build a world where visually it matched the kind of nuance and complexity and beauty that he was able to do with language. The real challenge was how can we do that visually? How can we do that with images? How can we do that with actors? Those were, I think, the biggest challenges. Or, the framing that we embarked upon as a starting place. Preserving the language also meant, well, how can we then look at this as a series of also monologues? One thing we wanted to really explore was what did it look like to take a singular voice—one man and one son—and turn it into every man and woman and every woman and son where they could see themselves reflected in the work, in the world that we were building. So, that was the other concept that we thought we would lean into when adapting it for the stage and also for film. 

Watching the film, not only do you see lots of representation in the different people speaking but you also see their myriad micro-interpretations of the words. It’s really terrific. How did you choose the actors who would read the work in the film and how did your original work with the Apollo Theater play into the choices you made?

So, the Apollo was the original commissioner and developer and presenter, along with the Kennedy Center supported the early stages of the work, as well. But when thinking of actors, we really thought of people who really had a command for language. Particularly for theater as a starting place and also who had a personal connection to the book. I remember our early conversations with Joe Morton. Joe was very much a huge fan of the book and Ta-Nehisi’s writing. We wanted people to not only obviously do their jobs as actors but also, you know, this is also how could they personally, as members of a community, find themselves in the content, in the language, in the subject matter. So, we were looking for that, as well. I was very interested in that. And also not just actors, right? We wanted musicians, activists, so that it was a real cross-section and swatch of our community. 

I cried several times watching the film and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have told you that. But did you find yourself crying during the production?

I had a personal—I shed tears while I was shooting the work. I also shed tears as we were editing, all through post, you know? And sometimes at different sections. It was a continual emotional catharsis. Even when I expected it, I knew exactly what moments were happening, I knew exactly what shots we were going to. I was providing notes on moving a shot here or there. But I knew that if I had the same kind of response and that consistency of response I knew that the world, the audiences would too. So, I absolutely did. You know, there’s a certain point when you’re making work—it may happen the first few times and then you shut off because you’re looking at something so technically. But this was something that was so personal to me. I’m a Black woman. I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter. I’m, shoot, a human. It touches every piece of our own humanity and identity. The emotionality of it all was quite inescapable. 

You’ve brought up the word catharsis a couple of times. What was cathartic for you? What was exorcised in making the work?

There’s this moment of the joy of the struggle and the joy of resistance, which is in the montage that happens after “Two Mothers.” It’s ultimately Ta-Nehisi’s voice over and he’s speaking, “Son, I’m sorry I cannot save you. We are trapped here in this country. But yet and still struggle for your grandmother, struggle for your brothers, struggle for your sisters.” It was that moment of even in this moment of real true devastation, that reminding ourselves that we still have always found moments for beauty within the struggle. We have still found moments to create such a beautiful culture that has sustained us. Our families have sustained us. This is the beauty of humanity and the beauty of who we are as Black people. 

It was that moment that I think was most cathartic for me. Because there is, of course, the tragedy of basically state sanctioned murders. That is tragic. There is true government policy that allows that system to continue, right? And justice not to be served and these murders to continue even up to today. And that is a true call to action and something that obviously we must address. And after this summer, the summer of racial reckoning, we obviously know that’s a major issue in our society. But the other side of it is how do we sustain ourselves even through that, right? How do we find joy? How do we continue to find joy within the struggle, right? Find the beauty amongst the madness. Find the stillness amongst the madness. That, to me, was the biggest revelation of catharsis, personally, that I found in the book and that we really tried to reach for with the film. 

How did you come to the decision to add Breonna Taylor to the narrative?

Well, Ta-Nehisi was editing the September issue of Vanity Fair and he had shared the transcript from his interview for Breonna and it was like—we both agreed in that moment that oh my gosh this has to be in the film. We just have to figure out a way. At one point, we were looking at the text of the transcript and having another actor actually do the voice-over of her mother. Then finally when we heard, we kept thinking, “Let’s hear Tamika Palmer’s voice. This is her voice and we should actually hear her speak her own story.” It opened—it provided, one, another sense of urgency, I think, for the film. A different sense of urgency. It brought us to 2020. But also it was this insistence that this kind of body destruction and vulnerability happens with Black women, as well. And that’s something that’s, you know, less talked about but something we’ve also got to recognize, as well. 

I admit that I feel voyeuristic about even bringing up the next question but it feels important to ask at this time—there’s such beauty and craftsmanship and skill in creating both the work and the film. There must be satisfaction in creating that work. But there must also be the feeling of trapped-ness. Like you’re required to make these devastating works instead of, well, anything else. Do you feel in some way shackled to these types of stories?

I mean, it’s the reality of being Black in America. [Laughs] I mean, that’s the only way I can think about it, right? If you think about our art and culture over the last 400 years—the blues, right? Jazz came out of an opportunity of how do we get unshackled and untrapped from whether it was a culture that doesn’t fit on our bodies or fit in our mouths, right? The blues was a true dirge for what was happening in the state under which we lived. So, you know, hip-hop is a rally cry. See us! Fight against the system, fight the power. So, I don’t see any other way, quite frankly. 

As you’ve sat with this work and contemplated it and produced it on several stages, what do two of its most prominent words— “rage” and “struggle”—mean to you today and are those definitions different than they were even a few years ago? 

Rage and struggle—wow. God. It’s interesting, they feel like two sides of the same coin, they really do. And it’s almost as if they go hand-in-hand, right? I mean, you know, it’s like rage always feels like—I felt rage in the film. Rage is something that we’ve consistently lived with. Rage is that fire that fuels, you know? I don’t know how else—and I feel like it changes. The words change and morph as we mature. But very slightly and with a sense of nuance, you know? I think at its core it seems as though we’re always there. 

Were there moments of brightness or levity during the film’s production?

I would say I think we were editing the pictures of the kids, I just loved seeing their beauty. I think, you know, working with the actors and being able to see people, whether it’s in person—shooting the Central Park scene with Marc Bamuthi Joseph was a lot of fun. Just being in the park and working again. 

What do you think is the ultimate impact of the film, either from your own perspective or what you’re garnering from others who’ve seen it?

I want to say it’s this, like, one, making this film I always felt like, you know, and reading the book, what Ta-Nehisi was able to do was remind us that, oh, okay, we’re not crazy. This thing that we’ve accepted as a thing is actually not okay and it is madness. He provided a forum to say, “Oh, wow! This is nuts! And we’ve got to say something about it!” So, I think that was it. And then an opportunity to mourn that madness. But then also an opportunity to continue to get fueled by our consistent ability to resist, to overcome and by our resilience. And being fueled by the resilience of humanity. 

What do you love most about living a creative life?

I love getting lost and building new worlds for people to swim in and people to discover themselves. That’s what I love the most. 

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