During the sobering, somber opening scene of The Hate U Give, an emotionally rousing and vital drama about police brutality against people of color, the smart and resourceful Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is barely in grade school when she’s given The Talk—in which African American parents must instruct their children on how to act when they’re pulled over by the police so they won’t get shot—by her loving father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby). Upon reaching her high school years, Starr’s protective mother Lisa (Regina Hall) sends her to Williamson, a prep school in an affluent neighborhood, mainly as a way to provide a brighter—and whiter—future for her daughter while keeping her away from the violence inherent in their predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights.
Starr’s voice-over, handled honestly as a way to insert the audience into Starr’s psyche (and not as a narrative crutch), informs us that Starr has to act as non-black as possible when she’s at Williamson. Meanwhile, her white classmates can appropriate her culture as much as they desire, as much as they can consume through mainstream media. Back in Garden Heights, she might feel like she’s allowed to be herself, but her neighbors see her as too white and snobby. DP Mihai M?laimare Jr. captures the specific ups and downs of the two sides with which Starr grapples by using distinct color palettes for both worlds. Williamson is evenly lit, bright, awash in shades of white—dull and flat, yet M?laimare creates a sense of clinical safety. Garden Heights is full of vibrant reds and yellows: life and energy, with the possibility of violence and turmoil. Director George Tillman Jr. visually establishes Starr’s inner conflict between these two disparate universes.
Then, Starr’s life turns upside down. One of her best friends (Algee Smith) from childhood is shot by a cop who “mistook” his hairbrush for a gun. Starr witnesses the event and has to decide between keeping her mouth shut in favor of maintaining the “non-threatening black girl” illusion at Williamson, or come out to the public regarding what she saw and be branded a “troublemaker.” An older, more traditional Hollywood take on this story would have immediately turned Starr into an inspirational hero, instantly ready to fight the system. Props to Tillman Jr., Angie Thomas, who wrote the original novel, and Audrey Wells, the screenwriter who tragically passed away a day before her film’s premiere, for giving this complex subject some room to breathe.
The Hate U Give has its failings, too. The first is an ill-advised thriller sub-plot that involves the local drug kingpin (Anthony Mackie) threatening Starr’s life if she talks to the grand jury, since the boy who was shot was a dealer working for him. This attempt at artificially injecting some genre tension gives us nothing we haven’t seen in better thrillers that came before it. The second is when the plot’s forward momentum comes to a screeching halt in favor of sequences that resemble a ’70s SNL sketch wherein Starr introduces her white preppy boyfriend (K.J. Apa) to her family, leading to some cringe-worthy attempts at comic relief.
On the surface, it would be easy to judge Starr and her mother for wanting to choose Starr’s future over justice, especially considering how much of a slim chance justice will be served in the case of a police officer shooting a black man in the first place, a fact that The Hate U Give wisely doesn’t shy away from. Yet as Starr gradually realizes who really does and doesn’t care about her friend’s murder, her conscience overcomes her logic. Even as her arc eventually reaches an inspirational finale, we’ve stood in her shoes for two hours, and previously easy answers take on a grayer shade. Casting Amandla Stenberg to carry the project was an inspirational choice: She’s luminous and always captivating in the part, delivering a natural performance that allows easy access to Starr’s soul.
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Writer: Audrey Wells
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Common, Algee Smith, KJ Apa, Issa Rae
Release Date: October 5, 2018 (select cities); October 19, 2018 (wide)