Movie Review: Drama – The Hate U Give
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, and KJ Apa
As the disproportionate killing of unarmed black men by white police officers continues seemingly unchecked in our country, The Hate U Give, George Tillman Jr.’s new film, joins Ryan Coogler’s, Fruitvale Station, and this year’s Monster’s and Men as one of the few major film releases to confront the issue head on. Based on the acclaimed Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, and adapted for the screen by the late Audrey Wells, who died a day before the film’s US release, The Hate U Give (or THUG per the novel’s cover as well as the film’s trailers and titles) employs its fictional version of this too-common tragedy to touch on themes of black poverty, drug use, the Black Lives Matter movement, white entitlement, and the whole complicated mess of institutionalized racism. The movie’s reach extends far beyond the young adult audience targeted by the novel. Its messages are relevant to every American – to African Americans who will recognize their own personal experiences in its uniquely honest portrayal of black life, and perhaps be inspired by its positive messages of dignity, and empowerment, and even more so to those white Americans, unable or unwilling to see the plight of black Americans through the tainted lenses of white privilege.
Like Boot’s Riley’s pro-revolutionary, Sorry to Bother You, and to a lesser extent, Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, the year’s other two high profile films about racism made by black filmmakers, The Hate U Give is unflinching and unapologetic, refusing to indulge those who may be offended by its black-centered viewpoint, sympathizing with the kind of things ignorant white critics like to raise their noses about, like the necessity to sell drugs for survival when good jobs are all but non-existent and the angry protests that make some white people uneasy. But unlike those darker films, it provides a glimmer of hope and an impassioned plea to white people to acknowledge the complex issues surrounding black poverty and racism. “How many of us have to die before you listen?” its teenage protagonist tells two cops near the film’s end. But she’s not just talking to them, she’s talking to us, to those doubting white audience members, the kind who see the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as some declaration diminishing the importance of white lives instead of the protest of the murder of innocent black people that it is – people who refuse to acknowledge their own privilege and then prove the opposite by acting like victims when minorities stand up for their rights. And above all, she’s talking to the indifferent, those of us who shake our heads in disbelief with every news story about cops killing black people and then change the channel and do nothing.
The main protagonist of the film is Star Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a 16-year-old girl whose parents (the superb Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall) have sent her to an all-white catholic school to protect her from the violent, drug-infested schools in their crime-ridden neighborhood, the fictitious Garden Heights, where learning is all but impossible. Star feels caught between her upper-class white friends and schoolmates and the poverty-stricken neighborhood in which she’s grounded, feeling too black for the one and two white for the other. But her character is most firmly rooted in the strong black family that raised her. Her father, tellingly named Maverick, a former drug dealer turned store owner, militantly prepares his children to deal with a white world that will try its best to diminish them. The film opens with a tear-inducing scene of Maverick diligently giving Star and her two younger brothers “the talk,” the sadly necessary conversation about the essentials of dealing with police officers with their lives intact (hands on the dashboard, don’t argue, etc.) He insists they memorize the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program, a manifesto of demands on the US government to provide justice and reparation for blacks, and regularly quizzes them on its contents. This proves valuable to Star, when she and childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) are stopped by a white police officer. Star follows the rules but her indignant friend argues with the cop against her pleas and then reaches into the driver’s seat to get a hairbrush. He’s immediately shot to death. Shaken and heartbroken, Star must decide whether to testify before a grand jury and risk retaliation against herself and her family by revealing the drug overlord for whom her friend was working.
Complicating the mixture is Star’s good-guy white boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa) who’s color-blind when it comes to Star but fails to understand her black identity, and her black cop uncle (Common), who justifies the actions of cops who fear for their own lives. This will no doubt cause some to balk at the film for allegedly diluting the movie’s message, but these criticisms are unfair. The movie never compromises it’s view of the gross injustice faced by black Americans. Though her uncle eventually admits to having a double-standard, these scenes are included to show that most of the community are not focused on hatred of white people, but simply want equal rights and justice. A point clearly understood by anyone who’s read the 10-Point Program. But for many, just the mention of the Black Panthers conjures up images of violent revolution which was only briefly part of the organization’s complicated and internally conflicted history. Though they did arm themselves to “protect’ members of the black community from police violence (shades of Antifa) and two members were involved in a shootout with police that resulted in two officers being killed, their main focus was always about community service — feeding poor children, etc., not killing white people or cops.
What keeps all of this in focus is that Well’s script, like Taylor’s book, is told through the eyes of Star (played with admirable aplomb by Stenberg). This is not just because it’s based on a Young Adult novel who’s lead character was created to connect with its young audience, but because, a growing teenage girl caught between two subcultures is the perfect heroine to explore the complex issues between the two races. It’s ultimately a coming of age story. Star’s experience eventually teaches her to be loyal to her roots and her identity as a young black woman, rejecting the casual racism of her clueless school friend while embracing her boyfriend who sincerely wants to understand her in all her blackness. This scene is particularly lovely in that is beautifully rendered by the two young actors, but also because it presents Chris as a model for white audiences. It’s not enough to be color blind. You have to understand someone’s experiences to fully appreciate them.
If the film at times seems to steer toward the kind of impossibly perfect, happy-family clichés we’ve seen so many times before, it steadies its course through intelligent discourse, and an ingeniously constructed plot that sees Star transform from conflicted innocent to political activist. Yes it preaches, but it’s not the kind of sermon that aims to make you feel good about yourself but rather to question your motives and take action. If the film is slightly marred by a formulaic threat and an overly pat, audience-pleasing, nick-of-time rescue at its resolution, it in no way diminishes the film’s considerable impact. It chooses hope over despair and can’t be faulted for that. This is a film meant to be watched by families, to be discussed and enlightened by. Tillman has a difficult job, balancing tension with sentiment, and for the most part, he succeeds forcibly. Despite its flaws, The Hate U Give stands on its own beside the Lee and Riley films as a discomforting portrait of contemporary America’s dark underbelly. It’s an important, moving, and powerful drama with an unwavering political bent and an urgent message for American audiences. And it’s all meaningless if we refuse to listen.