The title of the latest spotlight on the ever-sensitive subject of race relations and police shootings, The Hate U Give, is nothing to be sniffed at. Social expression takes many forms, and in this case, it makes complete sense to adapt a modern form of cultural communication for a very, very relevant story. Based on the inspirational novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give transfers its hip-speak title directly from the page to the screen in complete accordance with the book’s narrative. Unless you believe that T.H.Y.G. L.I.F.E. is a popular phrase sweeping the nation.
On the surface, The Hate U Gives has many of the familiar components of such a take on social issues. Privileged mostly-white high school, poorer mostly-black neighborhood, police treatment of non-whites, generational lifestyles and attitudes. But what we can’t do is make the idle claim that we have seen all this before. The integral subject matter here is not exactly in the same nature as the churning out of, say, comic book movies.
Directed by George Tillman Jr. (who ought to be more remembered for Soul Food rather than Barber Shop, perhaps), The Hate U Give stays well on track with these crucial, timely events of today’s America, while never coating them in gloss or embellishments. Although a justifiably angry and rebellious film, there’s a fine aura of poetry running through the gritty narrative.
Audrey Wells’ smart adaptation is pretty tight, as far as what audiences naturally require from a motion picture. At times, the scenes of action – from a shooting, or street protests, to gang hostility, or the tensions of high school friendship – appear to roll out like one-thing-after-another. And maybe that is how it really is, even on our own lives. As the arbitrary and the mundane certainly don’t stand out as much as the continual events that shape our lives – whatever our age or status.
From the point of view of 16 year-old black girl, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), The Hate U Give explores her gutsy, ever-growing attitude and wisdom of her own, and her family’s, identity in contrast to the world she lives in. When she sees her childhood best friend, Khalil, gunned down by a white police officer (who believed he was reaching for a gun, not the actual hairbrush), Starr is thrown into the direct line of fire of the unavoidable circumstances, as well as grief, that her social standing befalls her.
It’s a lot of weight on young shoulders, that’s for sure. Starr openly states to her white boyfriend, Chris, that she already struggles to align her separate personas between that of her high school in Williamson, and her less affluent neighborhood in Garden Heights. Her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), has a criminal gang past with local control, King Lords, led by King (Anthony Mackie), for who Maverick served time. Maverick himself is strong-at-heart, striving to keep the balance of keeping his dodgy past where it is, and drilling into his family the empowerment of their race.
As Starr becomes the key witness to Khalil’s death, she is first diverted out of media attention, as well as keeping her role in the tragic incident from close friends and neighbors. Implications with seemingly every move, Starr treads uncertain waters, as she is pressured to do a clandestine television interview, stand in front of a grand jury, and come to terms with another tragedy close to her heart from childhood.
The failure of the justice system to charge the white police officer responsible for the shooting, as well as the rattled cages of the King Lords to almost breaking point, ignites the fire and voice in Starr. She confronts the opposing empathy of her close friend Hailey, hurls out her inner strength in declaration of self-worth, and literally takes the mic (megaphone) during a powerful, but escalating, street protest.
The penultimate scene is extraordinarily affecting. Starr and her half-brother, Seven, are trapped in Maverick’s Garden Heights grocery store, when one of King’s thugs firebombs the place. As Maverick and the police arrive on the scene, the imminent confrontation brings all the involved parties face-to-face. It’s a brief, but eye-watering showdown. The Hate U Give is, in fact, well aware of its emotional value, and exudes them in compelling moderation.
And you can’t talk about the influence The Hate U Give has on you, without mentioning some of the terrific performers here. In particular, Amandla Stenberg as Starr, and Russell Hornsby as Maverick. On-screen, they give the daughter-father dynamic a rich, honest depiction.
Hornsby manages to remarkably demonstrate Maverick’s force of nature, while unashamedly being on the brink of letting his emotions take over. And Stenberg, well, she simply shimmers and sparks with every little arc that Starr finds herself on. Somehow echoing Halle Berry’s ferocity in Monster’s Ball, with every smile, grimace, and tear, Stenberg is a revelation. A central performance of undeniable clout and indignation.