Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Tanisha Anderson. These are just a few of the black people whom police officers have killed in the last few years. The list goes on and on. The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Say Their Names campaign has focused attention on myriad issues surrounding state oppression in the black community. One aspect of the black experience in particular received intensive media attention a few years ago: The Talk. That’s the lecture many black parents give their children about what to do during an encounter with the police. Keep your hands visible at all times. No sudden movements. Remain polite and respectful. The goal of strategies like these that black parents impart during The Talk is to make sure their children walk away from interactions with the police alive.
The Hate U Give, a powerful film about race, justice, and so much more, starts with The Talk. It sets a serious and sober tone that director George Tillman, Jr. masterfully sustains as he adds wonderful touches of humor and humanity to a story of righteous anger and, ultimately, hope.
Based on Angie Thomas’ 2017 breakout hit debut novel, The Hate U Give focuses on 16-year-old Starr Carter. The high-school student lives in Garden Heights, a poor, mostly black neighborhood. Because her parents, Lisa and Maverick, want the best for their kids, they scrape together tuition money for a not-so-local private school: the mostly white Williamson Prep. Starr, her older half-brother Seven, and their precocious younger brother Sekani, must all exist in two different worlds. Starr has become a master at code switching. She has two personas: Garden Heights Starr and Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr never uses slang. She’s always cheerful and pleasant. She never gives her classmates reason to think of her as “ghetto.”
Starr’s worlds begin to collide and crumble in the aftermath of a party she’s attending in Garden Heights. Someone at the party fires a gun, causing the partygoers to scatter and the police to show up. Starr and her childhood best friend, Khalil, split the scene in his car and have a heart-to-heart about why their friendship isn’t as close as it used to be. A police officer pulls Khalil over and tells him to exit the vehicle. Starr vehemently pleads with Khalil to keep his hands on the car as the officer walks back to his cruiser – she is one of the recipients of The Talk in the first scene of the movie. Against Starr’s protests, Khalil reaches in for a hair brush to show her how calm and collected he is. The cop opens fire and, in an instant, kills a teenager who had his whole life ahead of him.
The most wonderful and moving thing about The Hate U Give is its profound complexity. That quality is present in the source material – one of my favorite reads from last year. Screenwriters Tina Mabry and Audrey Wells expertly translated into their adaptation the layers of complexity that Angie Thomas crafted in her novel. Thomas examines so much more than the unjustified killing of a black kid by a police officer. She also looks at how the media often portray the victim in these cases. She complicates Khalil, and the situation, because no one is perfect, but in the media’s rush to judgement, any imperfection in a victim’s life grants justification to the unjustifiable.
Khalil sold drugs. As far as the media and the public are concerned, that means his death was acceptable. What they never bother to consider, or even learn, is why he sold drugs. His mother is herself an addict, and he needed the money for his grandmother, who couldn’t pay for her cancer treatments.
Complicating the situation even more is Khalil’s boss, King, the head of the King Lords gang. King has little concern to seek justice for Khalil. His only motivation is making sure the police don’t find out Khalil was selling his product. Starr must take these factors into account when deciding if she’ll speak up for her friend. But there’s more. Her mother tries to convince Starr not to testify out of fear for her safety. Then there’s her uncle, Carlos, a police officer working for the same force as the cop who shot Khalil, who wants to give advice, too.
The Hate U Give also makes white people reckon with their behavior in these situations. The students of Williamson Prep. stage a walk out in support of Khalil, but Starr quickly realizes it’s more about blowing off classes and getting out of pop-quizzes than a heart-felt concern for justice.
Thomas beautifully weaves these issues and many others together in her novel. Mabry and Wells don’t drop a single bit of nuance in their adaptation for the screen. If I can offer any criticism of their work, it’s that they try to remain too faithful to the novel by including an overabundance of Starr’s narration from the book. This device dominates the first act of the film but is mostly abandoned after that. This causes an unsatisfying unevenness.
George Tillman, Jr.’s direction, however, is just as effective as the best aspects of the screenplay. His translation of the words on the page into evocative, cinematic images is masterful. The way he stages events like a peaceful protest that turns to chaos once the police try to break it up has the power to move audiences to tears. Tillman proves himself adept at handling both big moments like the protest and small moments with equal skill. A scene like Starr awaking from a nightmare the morning after the shooting proves this. In tears, she gets sick into a trash can as her father sits by her side to console her.
Tillman also knows how to seamlessly interject moments of levity, which are peppered throughout The Hate U Give, into the picture. Just moments after that scene showing the emotional toll the shooting is taking on Starr, the family sits down at the breakfast table for pancakes. The playful Sekani steals a bite of bacon from Starr’s plate, and the whole family can’t help but dissolve into laughter. This moment breaks the tension for us, too, and it serves to remind us that life goes on even in the harshest of circumstances.
Tillman – no doubt through a meticulous casting process and the luck of the movie gods – was blessed with a phenomenal company of performers for his film. Nineteen-year-old Amandla Stenberg is pitch-perfect as Starr. She grants us access to Starr’s roiling emotions that the shooting and subsequent events cause within her. Her character’s shining moment, which comes during the protest, is profoundly moving.
Another brilliant performance comes from Russell Hornsby as Maverick, Starr’s father. His own interaction with the police when he confronts King for intimidating Starr into keeping her mouth shut is harrowing. The following scene, when he furiously drills his kids on the Black Panther Ten-Point Program, is a study in an actor giving his complete self over to a role.
It feels like everyone involved in The Hate U Give gave everything of themselves to make this film. The result is a rich, complex example of socially conscious cinema. It’s required viewing for a deeper understanding of racial injustice. It humanizes the cost of this injustice on a very personal level. It also provides something we all desperately need right now: hope for a better future.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- One of the best books of 2017 has been turned into one of the best movies of 2018 by a group of talented, dedicated artists. This story has the potential to open some eyes and soften some hardened hearts.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is a parallel, I think, between this movie and my number one movie of last year, The Florida Project. The victims in both, Khalil in The Hate U Give, and the hidden homeless in The Florida Project have failings and faults. They are not perfect. Both movies make the case, in nuanced ways, that these people still deserve respect, kindness, and help despite not being perfect. Our values only mean something if we apply them in the hard circumstances.
- I don’t want to spoil why the title of the movie is spelled the way it is. There is an exposition scene in the movie. The book handles it better; in the movie version, it goes by rather quickly. It’s still an effective summation of the central thesis of the story, though.
- I want to mention a few really good performances I couldn’t fit into the main review. Anthony Mackie is quietly menacing as the gang leader King. Issa Rae has a wonderful dramatic turn as April Ofrah, a lawyer and the head of a social justice group called Just Us for Justice. She encourages Starr to speak up for Khalil.
- In fact, Issa Rae’s character has the best, most powerful line of the film while giving a speech during Khalil’s funeral: “It’s impossible to be unarmed when our blackness is the weapon that they fear.”
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- The crowd gave enthusiastic and much deserved applause at the end of this screening.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I think it’s safe to say Oscar season is now upon us. Damien Chazelle (who has been nominated for three Oscars, and won one for his direction of La La Land) has a new movie out that will no doubt be a Best Picture contender. It’s called First Man, and it tells the story of Neil Armstrong becoming the first human being to set foot on the moon.