Angie Thomas’s bestselling novel becomes an earnest, intelligent message movie with impressive performances.
The expression “YA” has become synonymous, to some audiences, with allegorical tales of epic science fiction and fantasy, where young adults overcome adversity and become incredible heroes. But YA fiction need not be fantastical to tell a meaningful coming of age story. And so, in the great tradition of To Kill a Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry comes Angie Thomas’s bestselling novel The Hate U Give. It’s a story that’s epic in theme, intimate in character, and which translates powerfully to the big screen.
The Hate U Give stars Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) as Starr, a teenager who lives with her family in a crime-ridden black community, but whose parents Maverick (Russell Hornsby, Fences) and Lisa (Regina Hall, Girls Trip) work overtime to send her to an uppercrust, predominantly white private school. In her voice-over, Starr explains that there are two versions of herself: Version One lives in her community and embraces her culture, and Version Two goes to school and mutes her colloquialisms, and avoids discussing social issues. She lives in two separate worlds, and as her story begins she is reasonably comfortable in both. Both of Starr’s worlds fall apart when, in the midst of a traffic stop, a white police officer panics and shoots her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith, Detroit). At home her community is in mourning, at school she can’t talk about it without becoming an outsider. And if she testifies against the officer, she’ll open herself up to unwanted publicity, threats, and a complete collapse of both of her lives.
The title “The Hate U Give” stems from Tupac Shakur, who turned “Thug Life” into an acronym that stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***’s Everybody.” It’s a statement that expresses the cyclical, generational social structures that divide people, and sets them at arms against one another. Exploring that complex topic is a mission statement for George Tillman Jr.’s film, which confronts serious issues directly, in its story and its dialogue. These are issues that must be explored, not just because it’s thematically important, but because acknowledging the inequities in the world – and deciding what you’re going to do about it – is indelibly linked to growing up.
The label “coming of age” gets lobbed at many stories, many of which are simply tales that take place during adolescence. The Hate U Give is a story about growing the hell up, a complete transition between childhood obliviousness and knowing firsthand how broken the system is, and taking it as one’s personal responsibility to change it. And although that kind of storytelling is, by its nature, quite didactic, The Hate U Give rarely oversells itself.
The film’s impressive ensemble cast earnestly captures the moments of love and hate, levity and dread that emerge from its complicated storyline. Stenberg carries the film on her shoulders, and her transformation is potent and impressive. Hornsby and Hall provide striking performances as her parents, who represent values that are sometimes out of synch, but who are always working together to raise a family the right way, amidst impossible circumstances.
Always, at the heart of The Hate U Give, there is an earnest awareness of social realities, and the effect they have on the characters’ daily lives. The film begins with Starr and her siblings getting “the talk,” which in their case outlines of how to interact with the police when they stop you. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. The film directly quotes Rev. Traci Blackmon: “It is impossible to be unarmed when my Blackness is the weapon you fear.” The gross injustice that befalls Khalil leads to protests, outrage, riots, and escalating tensions with the police. It’s a story that plays out all too often in the news, and at no point does it ring false in The Hate U Give. And sitting in the center of it all is Starr, suffering from nightmares, hiding her pain, and gradually coming to terms with how the murder has changed her. She has to act because she can’t bear not too.
The Hate U Give is at its best when it has difficult conversations, in which people express opposing points of view and Starr comes to her own conclusions. It’s painful to watch her realize her white friends have no clue what she’s going through, and that some of them are protesting Khalil’s murder to get out of school that day. And it’s legitimately poignant to hear her conversation with her uncle Carlos (Common), a police officer who tries to explain the mindset of cops who feel threatened, and shoot potential suspects. It almost sounds like he’s making sense, until she comes back at him with an uncomfortable but unassailable argument.
It’s easy, for some, to roll their eyes at earnest motion pictures with a clearly labeled message. And sometimes these types of films overplay their hands, and fall into the realm of camp. The Hate U Give is not one of those films. It’s direct, but its material demands the direct approach. It’s genuinely important to have these conversations, and to give young people – The Hate U Give’s target audience – the material and inspiration they need to actively engage with the world around them, and make it a better place. George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’s novel provides that material. So whatever issues one might find with its storytelling – and perhaps there are a few pacing issues, and a little repetition here and there – this movie has value. It confronts the world head on, without the aid of pop artifice or allegory, and it stands its ground.