‘Between the World and Me’ Director Kamilah Forbes on Bringing Breonna Taylor Into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Story

Kamilah Forbes directing "Between the World and Me"

Prince Carmen Jones Jr., an African American man who was racially profiled and killed by police officer in Virginia in 2000, features heavily in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book “Between the World and Me,” about being Black in America. The two were friends in college, and Jones’ story is one on which the media doesn’t often focus: an affluent Black man succumbing to tragedy at the hands of systemic racism.

When “Between the World and Me” was being adapted, first as a series of monologues for the stage in 2018 and then again for an HBO special event film in 2020, Jones’ story was still a predominant element of the narrative. But, in the two decades since his death, his name was joined by countless others on an ever-expanding list of victims of such tragedies. In order to speak to the “now” of the moment for the HBO project, director Kamilah Forbes expanded beyond Coates’ book to include Breonna Taylor’s story, as well.

“Breonna was important because we made the film out of a point of urgency,” Forbes tells Variety. “If we had made this film four years ago or even a year ago, I think about the protest montage and how our young people today have really stood up and are on the front lines fighting [and] that moment had not necessarily happened the way it happened this past summer. I do feel this is an ode to 2020 and reflective of this particular time. When I think of that ‘In Memoriam’ scroll at the end, we were updating until final delivery, which was a couple of weeks ago. And even within that time there were other lives that were lost that made the headlines that we wanted to make sure to include. And that says something about our country. It’s the whole reason why we’re needing to make this film.”

Jones and Taylor’s stories end in similar fashion: by their untimely and unlawful deaths at the hands of police officers. But “Between the World and Me” draws a deeper connection between the two.

Utilizing audio from an interview Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer granted Coates, who also executive produces, Taylor’s story is told in her mother’s own honest and organic words. “It then became an echo of two mothers because we had Prince’s mom built into the story, and this became an echo of that in this really beautiful and heartbreaking way,” Forbes says.

Additionally, Forbes shares that although there is a scene in “Between the World and Me” that cuts between her actors reacting with various levels of outrage and sadness as Palmer narrates her experience of learning about what happened to her daughter, what was actually playing in their earwigs behind the scenes was Reid’s monologue about Jones. “It’s kind of profound in the way that it translates,” she says.

Although Forbes worked with more than a dozen actors for “Between the World and Me” and admits she did originally consider having an actor voice the transcript from Coates and Palmer’s interview, “the matter-of-fact way that she talked about the accounts” proved to be why she wanted to use Palmer’s actual voice and not ask her to re-record anything with her direction. Her approach with her actors, when shooting reaction shots was to do only one take “because it was about the immediate, organic, raw reaction,” she explains, and this was no different.

In late-July/early-August 2020, on the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Taylor’s (among others’) death, Forbes began reaching out directly to actors to be a part of “Between the World and Me.” Some of the people she asked and ultimately brought onboard were those who had worked with her on the previous Apollo Theater production, such as Joe Morton and Greg Alverez Reid; others, she says were just familiar with Coates’ work and “really wanted to say something at this time.” Overall, though, she needed a group she could trust implicitly (and who would do the same for her) because they were producing the project amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated remote production.

Forbes was able to be on-set in New York and Washington, D.C., but for those who shot in their own homes in Los Angeles or Atlanta, she could only communicate through technology, which provided new challenges for the first-time on-screen director who has an established way of working with theater thespians.

“As a director I love to feel the room, understand see the actor’s full body — when they’re uncomfortable, when they’re leaning in, how much further they can go. I like to have side conversation between takes. It’s all helpful and purposeful in getting the actor to the next point and the next take, maybe unlocking something together,” she says. “But in this process it was really about as concise and clear and succinct communication as possible through the screen.”

Working this way, Forbes says, did come with a few advantages, though. The first was that she was free of distractions that come from being on-set and was forced to focus on the monitor, which is the way the audience will experience the story as well. Additionally, since she couldn’t bring actors together, it helped her really lean into the idea of monologues as the way to tell the story. “That hurdle became a real opportunity, creatively,” she says of pandemic production.

Although her cast, from Susan Kelechi Watson, who also executive produces, to Angela Bassett; Mahershala Ali; Jharrel Jerome; Oprah Winfrey; Courtney B. Vance; Yara Shahidi; the aforementioned Morton and Reid; audio from the late Chadwick Boseman, and more gave her so much material to work with when it came to emotion, Forbes didn’t want to just leave the camera on them alone for the duration of their monologues.

“Ta-Nehisi’s language is already so highly poetic — the language has a sense of metaphor and poetry and movement — and visually I felt like we needed to mirror that,” she explains.

In addition to popular songs (Black Thought’s “Soundtrack to Confusion” and Lecrae’s “Welcome to America,” for example) and score by Jason Moran, she and her supervising editor David Teague wove in archival video and photographic footage (often from Instagram “so it felt accessible,” she notes), and even painted animation in order to “underscore what the language was trying to say.” The end of the film even includes an original song from Black Thought and Ledisi, written specifically for “Between the World and Me” and designed as an “overview, a summation, to help emotionally.”

One thing she refused to incorporate was the triggering imagery of murders or beatings that had played out on the news in recent months — or even years past.

“We don’t need to be re-traumatized,” she explains. “This is a film more so about reckoning with the country — how did we get here? — while at the same reckoning in a way that allows a space for warn but also allows a space for the beauty of the resiliency of a people. So it was always a constant balance [of] how do we make this look as beautiful as possible, as graceful as possible? How do we make sure that everyone — woman, man, child — has an entry point and can see themselves reflected? That informed our choices of archival, of when we cut away and when we didn’t. It also informed the fact that we wanted to use archival that people had never seen before, so the idea of home movies.”

“Between the World and Me,” Forbes continues, is intended to be a “love song and love letter to Black people,” but she notes that it is not a project made solely for a Black audience.

“We are all Americans and citizens of this globe, and this is also a film about humanity — about the nuance of humanity,” she says. “This also is an attempt in what I think the book did in [bringing] a sense of humanity to the BLM movement. How do we understand the people behind the hashtag? It further fuels us for the fight for human rights: protection of our bodies is a human right.”

“Between the World and Me” airs Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. on HBO.