The latest film from director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious) joins the year’s growing ranks of impressive and vital black filmmaking, which includes such works as Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, BlacKkKlansman, Monsters and Men, and even Black Panther. These are films that are not only telling the stories that explore the black experience in America (or Wakanda, in one case), but they are doing so in creative and bold ways. Based on the hugely popular novel by Angie Thomas (adapted by Audrey Wells), The Hate U Give may take the most straightforward attempt of the bunch, but in doing so, it adds an immediacy and righteous anger that ranks it among the most believable and nakedly emotional films of 2018.
Rising young actor Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games, The Darkest Minds) has the role of Starr Carter, a high school student whose protective parents (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) send her from her poor, mostly black neighborhood to a nearly all-white prep school outside of town. I could be remembering wrong, but I don’t believe the specific city or even part of the country is mentioned, and that’s because it ultimately doesn’t matter where this is happening—the story is the same. A great deal of the The Hate U Give deals with Starr’s dual identity. She deliberately erases all traces of being “ghetto” around her white friends, which is ironic since they spend so much of their time trying to appropriate black culture. Starr even has a white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), who may be the only one of her school friends who seems genuinely interested in what her life is like outside of school.
The other half of her life is back home, hanging out with the friends she grew up with, including her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith), who has harbored a crush on her since they were kids. After a party where they reunite after not seeing each other for a while, the two drive off to catch up and flirt, but by the end of the night, they are pulled over by police and before long, Khalil has been shot dead, bleeding out in Starr’s arms.
The incident rocks Starr so deeply that she begins to question everything about her life in an attempt to understand how something like this could happen. Her parents have sheltered her from some of the worst aspects of the world, including the fact that her father used to be the right-hand man of the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who Khalil was also working for. As word slowly gets out that Starr witnessed the shooting, she gets pressure from all sides—some wanting her to stay quiet, others wanting her to testify from the rooftops about what she saw.
One of the most significant and resonating moments of The Hate U Give is a talk Starr has with her uncle Carlos (Common), a police officer who fully admits he might have also shot a young black man under similar circumstances. The film comes by its outrage after Starr has processed every angle of the incident, but after consulting with legal adviser/activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae), she decides to not only testify before a grand jury but go public with her story. The movie culminates in protests, direct confrontation with riot police, and a showdown between the drug-dealing elements of the neighborhood and the residents who want them gone. It’s this emphasis on changing things from within, since many on the outside would be fine watching things implode, that makes the film’s message so unique and significant.
The Hate U Give is a coming-of-age story like no other, and director Tillman understands that it’s the younger members of a community who are ultimately the ones who have to decide whether they want to save their neighborhood or abandon it and let it collapse. It’s a powerful work, as the book was, and it’s mostly suitable for older kids (it’s rated PG-13), delivering a cautiously hopeful message, with Stenberg at its center, absolutely embodying all that is hopeful in the world. This is a rousing, great little movie that feels epic in scale and importance.
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