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‘The Hate U Give’ (review)

Produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey,
Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr.

Screenplay by Audrey Wells
Based on The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall,
KJ Apa, Russell Hornsby, Algee Smith,
Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, Sabrina Carpenter,
Common, Anthony Mackie

 

The Hate U Give opens with “The Talk”.

Depending on the community you claim, this could conjure images of an uncomfortable discussion about the birds and the bees, or a no-nonsense lesson meant to save your life in the event of a police interaction. For 9-year-old Starr and her brothers, it’s the latter.

As her father, Maverick, instructs them in the ways to micromanage their behavior in order to lessen the possibility of a tragic outcome, he ends with a reminder that they are not without power, telling the kids “Being Black is an honor; you come from greatness.” This back and forth between knowing your personal strength and facing a world that is fearful of it is the heart of the film, and the beat never falters.

A thoughtful adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel by screenwriter Audrey Wells, The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) as the careful walls she has built between the girl that goes to prestigious Williamson Prep and the one who goes home to impoverished Garden Heights crash down in the wake of her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith) being fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. The event forces conversations on each side, demanding that she search within herself for the voice that only she can give to Khalil’s death.

There is an almost desperate desire in Starr to maintain both versions of self that she has created. At her fancy mostly white private school, she becomes “Starr 2.0”: the kind of non-threatening Black girl that everyone feels comfortable appropriating culture around because she swallows her reactions to maintain the fantasy. Starr’s internal monologue outlines her guilt as she smiles and openly entertains her classmates’ use of intricate handshakes and Black vernacular. Her criticisms of both their behavior and her lack of external reaction speaks to the heavy toll of codeswitching (the practice of switching the way you express yourself depending on the audience).

To watch a young woman who was so joyful moments ago at her kitchen table shrink herself to conform because of the weight of race-based perceptions is affecting. What a cruel additional maze to navigate while muddling through those already uncertain teenage years of personal exploration. Even at a neighborhood house party, Starr is still managing her double consciousness as she wonders if she belongs among the other teens in the neighborhood who crack jokes about Williamson changing her. Khalil is the only one at the party who accepts her as is, straddling the old life and new. His time onscreen is brief, but his importance to Starr is incalculable as she spends the rest of the movie acting as the guardian of his life, lest the circumstances of his death overwhelm the fact that he was an individual, not a hashtag.

Amandla Stenberg is wonderfully intentional in her portrayal of Starr. Each time a real smile is coaxed out by family or friends it is full and warm, while every angry tear seems to pour out from a body unable to contain its grief and passion over an inequitable system that halts justice at every turn. Stenberg is equally engrossing in quiet moments of reflection, showing a depth of understanding that speaks to the rapidly maturing Starr. This performance easily confirms Stenberg as one of the most engaging young adult actresses out there.

As her lived experiences in Garden Heights start to creep into her life at Williamson, Starr starts to hold those around her accountable for their complacence. When most of the school leaves halfway through the day to stage a superficial and self-congratulatory protest in Khalil’s name shortly after Starr’s neighborhood has taken to the streets in genuine anguish, we can see that she is set apart as usual, but in a way governed by emotion rather than self-perseverance. This slow-burning fuse eventually leads to several illuminating confrontations about her sense of self. From the shallow Williamson best friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and white, but well-meaning boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), to her discerning mother Lisa (Regina Hall) and police officer Uncle Carlos (Common), everyone has a piece of the puzzle that makes up Starr’s fully realized persona. But it is not until the verdict from the grand jury that Starr comes to  find out the amount of power that persona can wield if she would only trust herself.

It takes an immensely talented cast to balance the pain, anger, and fear that pervades so many interactions after the shooting with the hope, joy, and determination necessary to move forward without seeming like an afterschool special. Thankfully, this ensemble is incredibly fluid and work off each other with great reward. Hall and Hornsby anchor the family scenes with warmth and responsibility, and are a realistic portrait of a married couple that have stayed in love but have their struggles. As April Ofrah, an activist that encourages Starr to speak publicly about the shooting, Issa Rae is straightforward in her mission but empathetic to Starr’s complicated situation. Anthony Mackie is quietly menacing as local gang leader King, and his confrontations with Hornsby are laced with the tension of unspoken history. Each actor brings their best to the table and the result is a rich experience that speaks honestly about family, community, and societal dynamics.

The Hate U Give pulls its title from Tupac’s explanation of what “THUG LIFE” means: “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.” There is no way to live separate lives, to succeed as a species when the pain of one community is so directly proportional to the indifference of another. It is a difficult lesson to watch Starr learn, but incredibly rewarding to come out of.

 

 

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