The Hate U Give, 2018.
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, Algee Smith, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, K.J. Apa, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Myles Evans, TJ Wright, Megan Lawless, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Al Mitchell, Karan Kendrick, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Drew Starkey, Kurt Yue, Susan Santiago, Brian Lafontaine, Tanya Christiansen, Bianca Haley, Javon Johnson, Tony Vaughn, Marcia Wright, and Anthony Mackie.
Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Now, facing pressures from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and stand up for what’s right.
The Hate U Give is another YA dystopian-set movie, just one that happens to take place in modern-day America. To clarify that bold statement, it needs to be pointed out that that director George Tillman Jr. (tackling his most profound work to date examining African-American life, already having helmed the winning The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete and a mostly forgettable Notorious B.I.G. biopic) is adapting a popular novel by Angie Thomas (with Audrey Wells handling the screenplay) that bears a striking resemblance in tone and narrative structure to so many recent films about teenagers busting their asses to overcome oppression. By the end of the emotionally grueling experience, the urban riots feel no more out of place as if we were watching Katniss storm the capital in an entry of The Hunger Games, but the obvious difference here is that The Hate U Give is dealing with real-world issues and themes.
Carrying a PG-13 rating, the film doesn’t go as far as some other recent gems (BlacKkKlansman, Blindspotting) in depicting the horrifying truths of living black surrounded by racism (although it clearly wants to as evident by utilizing the maximum allowed two F-bombs emphatically while also wishing it could drop the word more in appropriate situations), but that’s not really a detriment to any viewers except maybe adults. The Hate U Give walks a fine line between allowing reality to rear its ugly head and showing restraint, for the likely reason that the film is meant to be informative and a sort of teaching moment for maturing children. It still has edge (the opening scene shows Russell Hornsby’s father Maverick giving the talk to his children, and I don’t mean the sexual kind but rather a lesson in how to avoid the disturbing police brutality that not only continues to run rampantly unchecked but seems to target black people), but also a number of lighthearted moments that remind you that you’re not only watching something about high schoolers, but something written specifically for them.
I’m sure the sanitized approach will frustrate some (to be fair, maybe the novel is much more liberal with its usage of adult material), but there’s no doubt that the film has cemented its place in time as a complex character study of a young girl finding her activist voice and not only learning to be herself, but to take pride in her blackness and also stand out as an inspiring feminist figure. Amandla Stenberg deserves much praise for that as her portrayal of the conflicted Starr (her father named each of his children with names that have a deeper meaning); residing in a predominantly black neighborhood that is unfortunately filled with drugs and crime, her parents send her and her siblings to a much nicer school further away that, although it is filled with diversity, is brimming with problems of its own. Easily, one of the best scenes in the film sees Starr furious and downright offended that her peers are using the murder of her friend (the children don’t know she is the witness that saw what happened, but either way, that shouldn’t matter) and its subsequent black rights activism to protest going to school and get out of a chemistry test. Call me cynical, but I have no doubt so many people are the same way with a number of important issues, faking caring about something bigger than themselves for the attention, positive perception, and the ability to dodge one’s duties.
The home/school dynamic (which is also highlighted with fittingly and drastically different color palettes, implying the upper class school as safe marked by brighter, glossier lighting in comparison to the rawness of the urban neighborhood) also convinces Starr that she must act a certain way in each place, noting such things as black people being labeled ghetto for using slang versus all the white girls out there saying nonsense like “Gucci” (even after Eighth Grade, I still have no idea what the hell this means). More importantly, it’s what settles in fear for coming out into the public eye and fighting for justice regarding the murder of her best friend Khalil (Algee Smith who is no stranger to such sensitive subject material having appeared in last year’s overlooked and outstanding Detroit), but when she finally does, we see both an example setter to be proud of and the valuable advice that similarly aged kids could learn from dealing with likewise problems.
There does seem to be some subplots neutered for the sake of time, most notably with Starr’s uncle as a black man on the police force that sees things in a radically different way; it’s easy to disagree with his justification for the accidental murder, but it also feels like there is a more complex character there not explored. Again, that’s what holds back The Hate U Give from other, better new-wave films about African-American injustice; it goes deep with its portrayal and criticism of society but not deep enough.
There’s also the sensation, that for as powerful as the film is, all it’s really doing is adapting events that have unfolded from real-life accounts of police brutality against the black community, and inserting teenagers into the narrative. Compare it to something like Blindspotting and it’s clear which one feels more original and fresh, and also an essential watch to better understand society and the evilness permeating it. The only area that this doesn’t apply to is the examination of black-on-black crime, seen in the form of the neighborhood’s major drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie) prepared to unflinchingly inflict violence on the whole family if Starr stands up for her deceased friend and what’s right, in turn affecting his illegal business.
The watered-down approach to the material still doesn’t take away from all of the important qualities The Hate U Give does possess; there are also a number of supporting performances I haven’t even touched on yet for lack of time (Regina Hall is wonderful as Starr’s mother, displaying great inner strength and nervousness that danger can strike at any time, as is K.J. Apa playing the supportive white boyfriend trying to understand the situation without coming across insensitive). Then again, maybe I don’t have to, as Amandla Stenberg is a tour de force transforming into an empoweringly enraged ball of fury directed at the hate around her from adults that directly affects all generations. Tupac would approve.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com