'The Hate U Give' Is on the Nose Because It Must Be Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common
Published Oct 04, 2018The Hate U Give, a film adaptation of the YA bestseller by Angie Thomas, about the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white cop, is occasionally corny, and sometimes too on-the-nose. But to nitpick about these small trappings that often befall big-budget studio dramas is to ignore what makes The Hate U Give so powerful: it's intensely emotional performances, its refusal to pander to a white audience, its proud embrace of blackness, and the way it adeptly humanizes a widespread political movement beyond a hashtag, to the people who are terrorized every day by white supremacy while the world sits and does nothing. It's a necessary film that's uncompromisingly brutal — and it needs to be.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives a double life. At home, her parents (fantastic Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) are loving and supportive, but make sure Starr knows how to defend herself against anti-black harassment. At 9, her dad teaches her and her brothers how to survive encounters with police and the Black Panther Ten-Point Program. The Carters live in a predominantly black neighbourhood faced by constant threats from white police officers and gang-related violence. As a result, Starr and her brothers attend a upper-class prep school in another, mostly white neighbourhood, where she code-switches to blend in with her peers. Starr's white friends make the kind of references to streetwear and slang that Starr rightly identifies makes them cool, but her "'hood."
When Starr is driven home after a party by Khalil (Algee Smith), her childhood crush, a white cop stops them for a traffic-related incident. When Khalil reaches for a hairbrush inside the car, the cop (in a visceral moment made all the more harrowing by the sound design that emphasizes the loudness of the gunshot and the tight framing on Starr's devastated face) shoots him dead — leaving a traumatized Starr the only witness. Starr is encouraged to testify at the police officer's hearing and speak the truth about what happened to Khalil, and the barriers between her carefully compartmentalized life begin to break down as she realizes she can no longer stay silent in the face of injustice.
If The Hate U Give is on-the-nose, it's because it needs to be — this is a "Social Justice 101" film, necessary viewing for white audiences who need Starr's (sometimes too frequent) narration to explain the concept of "code-switching," who may not understand how ignorant phrases like "I don't see colour" or "that cop's life matters, too" are. Some of these scenes work. Some — like when Starr and her cop uncle Carlos (Common) touch on, albeit clumsily, "not all cops" — don't work as well thanks to awkward dialogue, interrupting human moments with melodrama. The ones that do work, though, owe their success to the powerful and emotional performances by the entire cast, who bring a raw empathy to each role.
Amandla Stenberg's staggeringly heartbreaking performance as Starr Carter feels like a new, necessary type of protagonist we need in young adult fiction right now: conflicted, impulsive, yet deeply rooted in protecting her loved ones and her community for the sake of a better world. Because the film is rooted in her experiences, and the way that systemic racism ripples through the black community, The Hate U Give is raw and urgent, even more so than just being thematically tied to the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Starr feels real, and her life feels real. Starr herself is emblematic of the dedication and hope of today's youth, especially youth of colour, who channel their anger into fighting for what's right.
(Twentieth Century Studios)