The first half of the 90s saw a proliferation of dramas about inner-city crime, like ‘Juice’, ‘Dead Presidents,’ ‘Clockers,’ ‘Belly’ and ‘Fresh’. Around 30 years later, America is enjoying a surge in films about racial justice, which include ‘Blindspotting,’ ‘Monsters and Men’, ‘BlacKkKlansman’, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ - and ‘The Hate U Give’.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise, ‘The Darkest Minds’) is a 16-year-old girl who is constantly flitting and switching between two worlds.
There is the poor, mostly black, neighbourhood where she lives with her parents, Maverick (Russell Hornsby, ‘Fences’, ‘Creed II’) and Lisa (Regina Hall, ‘Support the Girls’, ‘Girls Trip’), and her two brothers, Seven (Lamar Johnson, ‘Kings’) and Sekani (TJ Wright). Maverick, a former gang member, gives his children frequent quizzes on the Black Panther 10-Point Program. Then there is the rich, mostly white, prep school she attends with her friends, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter, ‘Horns’) and Maya (Megan Lawless), and her boyfriend, Chris (K. J. Apa, ‘A Dog's Purpose’, TV's 'Riverdale').
'THE HATE U GIVE' TRAILER
The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when her friend Khalil (Algee Smith, ‘Detroit’) is shot and killed by a police officer after getting pulled over for changing lanes without signalling and then reaching for a hairbrush.
The film catalogues Starr’s struggle as the only witness to Khalil’s death. She is the one person who can stand up for his memory, but she finds it immensely difficult to find the strength to do so. Now, facing pressures from all sides of the community, including a local gangster, King (Anthony Mackie, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’), Starr must find her voice and do what is right.
Directed by George Tillman Jr (‘The Longest Ride’, ‘The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete’), ‘The Hate U Give’ was adapted from Angie Thomas’ young adult novel by screenwriter Audrey Wells (‘The Truth About Cats & Dogs’, ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’). Published in 2017, the novel debuted at number one on The New York Times young adult best-seller list, where it remained for 50 weeks.
The framing, staging and production design of the film all help to create a lived-in texture, with Starr’s home life bursting with colour and then gradually becoming white-washed and sterile when she goes to school. However, Tillman entrusts the bulk of the storytelling to his uniformly excellent cast.
Amandla Stenberg and Russell Hornsby act the hell out of their roles. Stenberg exudes the quiet tension needed for Starr - her tears feel genuine and her words honest and sincere. Scowling, muscled and covered in gang tattoos, Hornsby is so good in his role as a tough but ultimately warm father figure. Regina Hall, Common (as Carlos, Starr’s uncle and a police officer), and Issa Rae (playing April Ofrah, an activist) all lend the film weight and a quiet, assured quality.
The framing, staging, and production design of the film all help to create a lived-in texture, with Starr’s home life bursting with colour and then gradually becoming white-washed and sterile when she goes to school. However, Tillman rightly entrusts the bulk of the storytelling to his uniformly excellent cast.
Problems arise in ‘The Hate U Give’ due to the weighty subject matter (police brutality and systematic racism) needing a sturdier vehicle than an adaptation of a Young Adult novel targeted at young teens. A few of the characters are written like caricatures, particularly Starr’s white bestie, Hailey, who declares “all lives matter” and Starr’s boyfriend, Chris, who insists he is “coloured on the inside”. It’s little harder to take the film seriously when the groan-worthy dialogue starts flying.
The movie also suffers from another common YA malaise, with music and narration crammed into scenes that don't need it. There are some emotionally heavy-hitting moments towards the end, but their effect is diminished because the music needlessly alleviates tension, or Starr’s narration explains things audiences can work out for themselves. By comparison, the highlight of Carlos López Estrada’s ‘Blindspotting’ (which also follows the witness of police shooting and tackles many of the same issues) is a scene that is played out in silence. It doesn’t draw attention to itself and, because of this, you’re not aware of its outcome, which makes it horrifying to watch. ‘The Hate U Give’ could have pulled this off during several scenes, but its unnecessary use of sound killed the impact.
Finally, the plotting of ‘The Hate U Give’ veers a little too close to fairytale territory as it approaches its climax. It seems that, maybe, the film is saying that poor African American communities need to come together to root out the cancer of crime that plagues them. In that case, it would have been great if the film could have taken a note from Spike Lee and delved even deeper into the neighbourhood and the community that was impacted by Khalil’s death.
Regardless of its structural rough edges, ‘The Hate U Give’ is a very modern coming-of-age film with a powerful message conveyed by a top-drawer assortment of actors, led by Amandla Stenberg.