I’ve been a moviegoing coward. For over a month, The Hate U Give, director George Tillman Jr.’s powerful adaptation of Angie Thomas’ young adult novel about a black teenage girl’s experience with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, has been playing in theaters and receiving some of the best reviews of the year. Yet, I’ve resisted. Heck, I saw The Nutcracker before Hate U Give. It’s not that I doubted the film’s critical bonafides; it’s more I wasn’t exactly in a rush to see today’s persistent police shooting headlines dramatized on the big screen.
Young people of color, usually black, are continually shot down in the streets and cops continually escape conviction. It’s a seemingly intractable situation which automatically divides people behind political lines. How exactly can The Hate U Give add to that conversation? Hollywood loves neat endings, and this is not yet a historical story that has one. So, anything overly Hollywood about The Hate U Give’s storytelling will automatically feel fake and at odds with current headlines, but anything too realistic will also feel deeply depressing.
The Hate U Give, for the most part, knows that. So, it ends not with a triumph over the system but instead the simple, captivatingly moving moment when the girl at the heart of the story finds her courage, anger, and self-determination. The girl we meet at the start – 16-year-old Starr Carter (a star-making turn from Amandla Stenberg), code-switching from acting white at her prep high school in the suburbs to acting black at her home in the hood – is not the same one we find at the end. Her superpower is her voice, her dad Maverick (an awards-worthy Russell Hornsby) informs her, and when she truly finds that voice she is a dazzling, wait for it, star to behold.
The plot: Starr wants nothing more from her teenage existence than to simply blend into the crowd. That’s tough to pull off when you’re one of the only black kids at a white school. As she tells us via her sporadic voiceover, her daily routine consists of constantly biting her tongue, attempting to cut off any possibility of being bullied, mocked, or even pitied. She won’t even let her boyfriend, sensitive rich kid Chris (KJ Apa), see where she lives, fearful of what will happen if anyone at school realizes she’s the poor black girl with an ex-drug dealer turned grocery store owner for a dad and a genuine drug lord (Anthony Mackie) for a nearby neighbor.
However, when she is the sole witness to a fatal police shooting involving friend/former crush Khalil (Algee Smith) in her neighborhood she has to decide what it truly means to be a good friend and realize that sometimes you have to speak up for the voiceless, social stigma be damned.
In effect, it’s a YA movie about a girl caught between two worlds and even two boys. For like 16 minutes. Then Khalil is shot after a cop mistakes a hairbrush for a gun and The Hate U Give turns into a modern-day Boyz n the Hood, transplanting John Singleton’s early 90s rumination on south LA gang culture and systemic racism to the #BlackLivesMatter generation.
In addition to Starr’s inspiring coming of age, the story touches on inner-city decay, the prison-industrial complex, the sensationalistic nature of the media, and the vicious cycle of crime, drugs, and gangs in black communities. The title, which is referenced repeatedly in a Rorschach, what-do-you-think-it-means? kind of way is pulled from a Tupac lyric about the crimes of one generation being visited on the next. The argument the film makes is we need more people like Starr standing in front of would-be victims and demanding an end to the violence to truly break the cycle.
All of that makes Hate U Give out to be impossibly heavy and possibly overstuffed with incident and social commentary. Which, guilty as charged. Also, the almost unyielding way in which the cops are presented as trigger-happy agitators is certainly not going to win over anyone already hostile to the film’s message. However, at its core The Hate U Give’s story is actually quite simple: a young, black girl learns to find and own her own power, sometimes due to the support of friends and family, other times by tapping into an inner strength she didn’t even know she had. When that girl is played with such nuanced intensity by Amandla Stenberg and coached by Russell Hornsby with such soulful wisdom, it’s almost impossible to ever look away.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As per the old Roger Ebert quote, The Hate u Give is an empathy machine of a movie for anyone outside the story and an inspiring call to arms for anyone who sees themselves in the characters. Amandla Stenberg and Russell Hornsby each deliver awards-worthy performances.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Tragic timing: Audrey Wells, the 58-year-old screenwriter behind The Hate U Give, died from cancer literally the day before the movie’s opening. In a career which began with the 1996 rom-com The Truth About Cats and Dogs and most recently included last year’s A Dog’s Purpose (a pet lover, clearly), The Hate U Give sees her going out on top.
- Russell Hornsby should play more dads in movies. Like, I just want an entire movie of him teaching kids tough lessons about life.