Speaking Out: George Tillman, Jr.'s timely 'The Hate U Give' centers on a teenage witness to a police shooting

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Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter has just arrived at a party in her impoverished neighborhood of Garden Heights feeling terrifically out of place. She’s been dragged there by the fiery Kenya, her half-brother’s half-sister. (Their brother, Seven, and Starr share a father, while Seven and Kenya share a mother.) Starr and Kenya are not kin, but in Angie Thomas’ bestselling novel The Hate U Give, and in the experience of George Tillman, Jr., the man who directed the adaptation that Fox released on Oct. 5, “family” is an expansive word. One of the most important there is.

But soon enough, not-quite-sister Kenya is leaving Starr to fend for herself. Starr knows some of the others at the party, but most of them she wouldn’t call friends, necessarily. There’s a figurative distance between them informed by a highly literal one: For the past few years, Starr has been attending the private school Williamson in a posh and predominantly white neighborhood several miles and worlds away from Garden Heights. Until a childhood friend plucks her from the wall she’s veritably hugging, Starr hangs back.

“I really liked the first scene in the book when Starr goes into the party and she says, ‘I don’t really know if it’s enough for me to be at this party.’ ‘Am I enough? Am I black enough?’ is really the subtext of the scene,” says Tillman over the phone. “And then we see her later going into Williamson and the white world. And I just thought, you know, we’d never seen a movie with code-switching,” the term he uses to describe the way Starr tries to act more “black” among her African-American friends and more “white” among her white friends, “or a project that deals with an African-American character who has to deal with that.”

The director of the classic Soul Food (which he also wrote, based on his own family experiences), as well as Men of Honor, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete and Notorious, knows a thing or two about code-switching, parties and what is signified by the guest lists. “There were only a few of us [African-American directors] in 1997, ’96, when I first started,” he remembers. “There were rumors or things that said black, African-American movies don’t travel overseas. So that was always the stigma.” He remembers a tacitly segregated world: “It was always like black Hollywood or white Hollywood. Or there’s African-American parties in the business, or there’s the white parties.” Just like Starr, Tillman felt “it was always like a code-switching as a director in terms of how to make other people feel very comfortable. Just [in] the last ten years, six, seven years, we’ve had more African-American directors, women directors and African-American women, more show-runners. And now we’re telling our stories and I feel really good that The Hate U Give is in the middle of all this.”

Hateis a story that is unafraid to place itself in the middle of tragic and controversial headline events. The childhood friend who arrives to rescue Starr at the party is the attractive, dimply Khalil (Algee Smith in the film), with whom Starr used to play Harry Potter when they were kids. A kid no longer, Khalil’s been “keeping busy” selling drugs. The two fall easily into their old patter, and when gunshots at the party ring out and scatter the revelers, they enjoy a ride home together that’s cozy, even rom-com sweet, until it’s cut short by a white police officer who pulls Khalil over for a minor offense. The encounter between a mouthy Khalil and an increasingly righteous officer escalates, until Khalil is told to stand outside his car while the officer examines his papers inside his patroller. Defying the officer’s instructions to remain still, Khalil reaches inside the driver’s seat for his hairbrush…and the panicked officer, mistaking the brush for a weapon, fires. Several times. Khalil falls.

Distraught, confused, afraid and progressively angry, it’s up to Starr (a gifted Amandla Stenberg) as the sole witness to Khalil’s murder to speak for him. But with the menacing drug lord (Anthony Mackie) who worked as Khalil’s boss threatening her to keep silent, not to mention Starr’s own anxieties about how the students at Williamson—including her white boyfriend—will perceive her if she does speak out, standing up for her friend is a fraught choice with no easy outcome.

“Obviously, I just felt it was very timely with the police brutality,” says Tillman of the narrative. He doesn’t need to mention the names of African-American men, women and children whose deaths following confrontations with policemen have inflamed and divided the nation for those names to hover between us: Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Yet Tillman’s interest in the story derived from its ultimate, if hard-won, positivity. “But the story of a girl finding her voice and finding who she is at the end of the day really just attracted me from the very beginning.”

As cast and crew worked their way through the difficult choices Starr navigates, on set “the tone was very responsible… Everyone who was there was very committed, we knew there was a responsibility to tell this story that was very timely, so we had a dedication to that.” With heavy sequences often stretching over several days—Khalil’s shooting took two days to film, while the climactic protest in his name at the end of the movie lasted for five—it was important, helpful, that the main players who portrayed Starr’s family indeed “were a family.” And, just as any family does, it had its cut-ups.

“In between takes, Regina Hall [who plays Starr’s mother] and Anthony Mackie, these guys were veterans, so we were able to break and have fun between takes.” He mimics Hall’s ribbing with a laugh: “’Oh, George, I got your camera angle over here!’” Says the director, “And Anthony Mackie’s the same way.” They were lucky to secure Mackie, whose commitment to the project was such he took eight or nine days off from shooting one of the Marvel films in which he plays the superhero Falcon to embody The Hate U Give’s violent drug lord, King. “He can turn it on and off,” says Tillman of the actor’s joshing. “And this was really just a blessing, because we were doing very emotional scenes.”

As the center—heart, soul and expressive face—of those scenes, the 19-year-old Stenberg, who was a senior in high school when she was cast, brought a level of dedication that impressed her seasoned director. “On the set, I like to do a lot of takes. I like to try a lot of different things. And she was there, always committed, always…was prepared, and there was just a really good relationship in terms of how we worked together.” Brace for a doozy of a compliment comparing the up-and-comer to one of The Greats: “And that relationship was just something that I learned working with De Niro on Men of Honor. It becomes a partnership. Not an actor working for you: It becomes a partnership.”

What the actor who is best known for playing the much-loved Rue from The Hunger Games brought to the role of Starr was more than just a willingness to collaborate, however. Her talent and her skills were complemented by deeply personal experiences. Like Starr, Stenberg grew up in an impoverished neighborhood—South Los Angeles, in her case. Like Starr, Stenberg went to school in an upper-class enclave: in L.A.’s Westside. “So a lot of these things in terms of details, what she felt growing up in Englewood and going to a white private school, some of these behaviors, how she speaks to students in the white private school, and her fears and her pain, all that [were] what I endorsed and loved for her to bring to the role,” says Tillman of the generous input into her character Stenberg enjoyed.

It was just that sort of insight which the actor brought to her conversations with The Hate U Give’s screenwriter, Audrey Wells, as well. Stenberg, Tillman and author Thomas all spoke with Wells as she worked on and polished the script. Tillman says there was never any hesitation about bringing on a white woman to adapt the novel. (Wells’ credits include Tarzan and Under the Tuscan Sun, among others.) Like his actors, “Audrey was very committed to the role from the beginning.” Plus, “with me being there and developing the material and the script with Audrey day-to-day, and a lot of that was with Angie there,” he felt confident in what they were producing. He mentions that Tina Maybry, a “great young African-American writer and director” (of USA’s “Queen of the South” fame) also wrote a draft. “So between us and Angie, we were in a really great place adapting the book.”

Tillman was himself able to bring some Starr-like understanding to the project. “I was able to move in a better educational system than some of my cousins who lived in the inner city,” he remembers of his childhood. He credits his father with instilling in him a respect for education, “which was always sort of key,” and a sense of its importance. “I was actually moved to a white public school that was maybe 60 or 70 percent white. I was exposed to different things.”

Anyone who has seen his Soul Food must respond with a knowing nod to hear the director explain, “I came from a very strong family background.” Recalls Tillman, “We had a working-class family,” though sometimes they were “middle-class.” He admits, “We had a lot of ups and downs, but we always had hope. And I had family members who were in prison and went through the system, just like Mav,” Starr’s father, played by Russell Hornsby (Fences) in the film. And those family members “gave us ‘the talk.’”

That “talk’” is the same one Mav gives in flashback to a young Starr and Seven and his then-infant son Sekani in the opening scene of the film. It consists of a series of instructions for how to act when a policeman pulls you over—a scenario that is treated not as a hypothetical, but as an inevitability. It serves Starr well the night Khalil is murdered: she puts her hands on the dash, where the officer can see them. And she does what he says. In fact, to say it served her well is perhaps a gross understatement; it may have saved her life.

Although Tillman was never made to memorize the Black Panther’s 10 Point Program as Mav insists his children do, he does remember being “in the car with one of my cousins, and the police officer would stop right by, and [my cousin] would be like, ‘Look straight ahead…keep your hands out, act not suspicious, just be yourself.’ And explaining where the police came from in history, in terms of slave patrol. And all that was just from cousins and family members. Or my father just telling me how to conduct myself in public around police officers.” These moments stayed with him. “All that was just drilled in me as a young boy when I was growing up and it was there for me when I started making The Hate U Give.”

Midway through the film, Starr sits on her living-room floor, scrolling through her Tumblr. From her page stare the faces of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Emmett Till, who, as a 15-year-old boy in 1955, was savagely murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman—although in a 2007 interview that woman admitted to making up her accusation. Emmett’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral. She left her son lying viewable to the public for five days in order to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this.”

The camera lingers on Emmett’s face, brutalized beyond recognition. It remains in the frame while Starr reads a message her white friend Hailey (a great Sabrina Carpenter) has posted underneath it—a reply to the effect of “OMG, really Starr???” And it remains in the frame when Starr turns away from her computer to read a text.

“I felt as a young boy growing up, it was always Emmett Till,” says the director. His father was from Mississippi, where Till was murdered, and Tillman spent time in Chicago, where Till was from. “I always wanted to do that film, the Emmett Till story. I’ve always felt really connected to it. So the idea of Hailey not looking at it the same way as someone who’s African-American would was very important.”

In order to clear the images for this scene, “I had to call up the families of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. And just speaking to their families and being one person removed from these individuals, and hearing in their voice a sense of pain and a sense of hope and a sense of support to use their pictures in the film, all of that was important for me in this moment. And these are people who were victims and people who I feel like we were honoring in the film.”

To hear the director speak, his filmfundamentally dramatizes the effects of a broken system. The story’s title is a nod to Tupac Shakur’s THUG LIFE tattoo and philosophy: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.” Meaning, as Khalil explains to Starr just minutes before he is killed, the hatred society feeds African-American children comes back to bite it when those children grow up to “wild out.”

“So you look at the system, and why racism and why the drugs and why this in our neighborhood: It’s because the system is designed to keep us there,” Tillman lays it out bluntly.

But just as Starr finds the voice to speak for her friend by the end of the film, the film’s director finds a stirring current amid the weightiness of its themes. “It’s so amazing,” he marvels, “we look at Tupac, his philosophy from ’93, ’94, is still here, it’s very prevalent, it’s very relevant… When you look at that philosopher, you know, that’s really what Tupac really was, he was much more than an artist.” He admires “the technical side of being a hip-hop artist” that the Notorious B.I.G., the subject of Tillman’s 2009 biopic Notorious, demonstrated, and refuses to say outright which of the rappers that once bitterly divided fans he prefers. “Isn’t it great we can look back in history” at both of them, he muses, mentioning as well the nice circularity of Mackie, who played Tupac in Notorious, having a role in this film inspired by Tupac’s words.

What the director will not hedge about are his hopes for what viewers will take away from The Hate U Give. The last thing he mentions before hanging up is a scene that occurs the morning after Khalil’s shooting. Starr’s family is sitting around the breakfast table: Mom, Dad, Seven, and younger brother Sekani, who is now around six or seven. Starr’s father reminds her that he named her Starr because, as Tillman explains, “she’s the light in the darkness.” Her father and her mother and Seven are concerned for her. The tone is serious; the air itself seems breakable. And then Sekani acts the consummate me-first little brother and steals a piece of bacon from her plate. “And the family laughs. I think that represents the movie more than anything. It’s that, no matter how bad, how tough things get, the family has hope."