Note: This is a repost of my The Hate U Give review from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now playing in limited release and expands into more theaters this weekend.
As evidenced by the countless number of films telling stories about white people, there is no one universal “white experience.” Not everyone lives the same kind of life, has the same guiding philosophies, or shares the same interests. But of course the same is true of other kinds of stories; those that have been underrepresented on the big screen. The Hate U Give doesn’t attempt to encapsulate the “black experience” in one individual, or even one family. Instead, in telling the coming-of-age story of a young black teenager against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, white privilege, gang wars, and the drug trade—and all the complexities that comes with each issue—The Hate U Give offers a diverse view of what it’s like to grow up black in America. The miracle is that while The Hate U Give tackles these issues with necessary weight and thoughtfulness, it’s also an incredibly commercial, relatable, and ultimately hopeful film.
The story of The Hate U Give, which is based on the bestselling book of the same name by author Angie Thomas, is told through the eyes of Starr Carter, played with a conviction and maturity well beyond her age by Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) in what should be a star-making performance. Through narration, Starr explains that she lives two different lives, presenting two different versions of herself. She and her family live in the mostly poor, black neighborhood of Garden Heights, but in order to give them a chance at a better life, Starr’s parents send their kids to a private school called Williamson Prep, which is predominately white and rich. At Williamson, Starr says she doesn’t use slang, makes sure to smile, and never gives anyone a reason to consider her a charity case from the ghetto. In Garden Heights, where she spends most of her weekends, Starr is able to cut loose a bit more, but still doesn’t entirely fit in—her 90s-infused style clashes with the flashy clothes of her Garden Heights friends, and she doesn’t consider herself a drinker or much of a partier.
One evening at a party in Garden Heights, Starr reconnects with her childhood friend Khalil, played terrifically by Detroit standout Algee Smith. Khalil disappeared for a while and ended up selling drugs for the local gang, the King Lords, in order to take care of his cancer-ridden grandmother. When a fight breaks out at the party, Khalil offers to take Starr home to make sure she gets there safely. But after being pulled over for failing to put on his turn signal, Khalil is shot and killed by a white police officer after reaching into his car and pulling out a hairbrush, which the officer claims he thought was a gun.
This one event has a ripple effect through the rest of the film, as Starr’s two identities come crashing down. If the Williamson kids—including her white boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa)—find out she was a witness, she’ll become the charity case she’s worked so hard to prevent. And as word starts to get around Garden Heights that she witnessed the shooting, the King Lords gang begins putting pressure on Starr and her family to keep her mouth shut. All the while the community is rocked by protests, as an impending grand jury investigation will determine whether the officer is charged in the shooting.
This all sounds heavy, and it is. But director George Tillman Jr. deftly handles the aforementioned issues so as to prevent the film from grandstanding or dictating a message. The issues confronting black Americans today are reflected in the wide-ranging ensemble, as Starr is conflicted about what to do. We see as no two friends or family members of Starr’s confront their blackness in the same exact way. Her father Maverick is a former gang member who did time and got out of the game for good, opting to forge a better life for his family. But he also holds strong beliefs about black identity that he wants to instill in his children. Russell Hornsby gives a tremendous performance here, imbuing the role with complexity and confidence—there are multiple moments from Hornsby that will make you want to leap out of your seat and applaud.
Then there’s Starr’s mother Lisa, who got out of Garden Heights when she was younger and wants Starr to have a future outside the neighborhood, at all costs—including preventing Starr from speaking up and calling attention to herself. Regina Hall’s performance in this part is similarly filled with shading and complexity, and ditto to that of Starr’s police officer uncle (Common) and even an activist played by Issa Rae. Indeed, the richness of The Hate U Give knows few bounds, and much credit must be given to Angie Thomas’ source material, which offers up a narrative that is as surprising as it is inspiring.
The screenplay adaptation by Audrey Wells and Tina Mabry doesn’t neglect nor does it linger on “teen life,” but it nevertheless serves as a compelling and entertaining chronicle of what it’s like to be a teenager. To be in love, to get into fights with friends. In that way, The Hate U Give is a rarity—a “message film” that tackles difficult subject matter, but that’s also incredibly entertaining. Tillman Jr. expertly walks a fine tonal line, and nothing ever feels jarring or out of place, even as the stakes escalate to dangerous levels during the third act.
But even when traversing territory that is all too familiar in 2018, The Hate U Give refuses to settle for platitudes or easy answers. It challenges clichéd ideas like “not seeing color,” as Starr emotionally confronts her boyfriend by saying, “If you don’t see color, you don’t see me.” This is ultimately a film about identity as Starr struggles to find herself, but it’s also a film that is unabashedly about blackness.
If movies are empathy machines, as Roger Ebert once said, perhaps a film like The Hate U Give can at the very least bring about some sense of understanding. As Starr works to find her own identity, we’re exposed to a variety of diverse identities along the way. No two black experiences are the same, but a staunch refusal to recognize the validity of any black experiences is part of the reason the racial divide in our country remains so intense.
Tillman Jr.’s character-rich adaptation of The Hate U Give attempts to provide some semblance of a pathway across that divide with tremendous patience, tact, and well-earned anger and frustration, stacked with a talented ensemble bringing it’s A-game. The film is also a terrifically entertaining teen story about finding one’s own voice, and a thought-provoking social commentary on top of all that. Put simply, The Hate U Give is one of the best films of the year.
The Hate U Give opens in theaters on October 19th.