Film Review: The Hate U Give

Amandla Stenberg impresses in this hard-hitting Hollywood drama.
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Adapting the best-selling debut novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give director George Tillman, Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells cook up an uncommonly urgent and thoughtful studio picture. Perhaps the key is that Starr Carter, the story’s young black heroine, is an uncommonly thoughtful movie teen, portrayed with vivid humor, warmth and intensity by Amandla Stenberg.

Via charming, if overly explanatory, voiceover narration, Starr weaves the tapestry of her complex world, which is split between the tough streets of the Garden Heights neighborhood where she and her family live and the practically lily-white bubble of privilege that is the Williamson School, the private school she attends in the ’burbs. Her dual existence, she tells the audience, necessitates her daily transformation from Garden Heights Starr to Williamson Starr, and back again. Neither Stenberg nor the production stress more than a superficial difference between the “two” Starrs, but the gist of the distinction can’t be missed.

Starr and the film speak with a clear candor about the matter of code-switching, and Starr’s rigid belief that she must keep her two worlds separate. The film subtly questions for whose good does Starr alter the way she dresses and speaks depending on whether she’s at school or in the Heights.

Starr’s parents, nurse Lisa (Regina Hall) and ex-gang member-turned-grocery store owner Maverick (Russell Hornsby), grew up in Garden Heights, and Maverick, especially, is proud to raise his family there. However, Lisa also insists that, for Starr, opportunities to succeed abound elsewhere. So she gladly drives high-school junior Starr and older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) to Williamson every day. Starr might be just as proud of her ’hood as her dad is, but she too recognizes the benefit of trekking to Williamson, where she’s well-liked and deep in puppy love with boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), who is white and has never been to Garden Heights.

She keeps Chris in the dark about the life she leads outside the Williamson bubble on the weekends. He isn’t with her at the Heights house party where she runs into childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), who’s taken up dealing for a local crime lord, King (Anthony Mackie). And she doesn’t reveal to Chris that she’s the innocent bystander who’s with Khalil when, after the party, he’s shot and killed by a white police officer during a routine traffic stop.

Tillman and director of photography Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (The Master) frame the shooting poignantly from Starr’s perspective, and it’s edited to maximize the shock and dismaying suddenness of the event. Up until the shooting, the movie demonstrates its currency with a breezy, teen-friendly pop-culture awareness and a very 2018 wokeness. From Khalil’s death forward, The Hate U Give turns tense, serious in its mission to mirror real-life events like the 2009 police shooting death of Oscar Grant in Oakland, the incident that originally inspired author Thomas to tackle the subject.

The story stays rooted in Starr’s experience, while reflecting the horrendous effects that ripple through her and her family’s lives. Of course, outrage over the shooting inflames tensions from the Heights to the suburbs, and Starr learns an invaluable lesson about the harm that’s caused by deadly injustice.

The film suffers no dearth of life lessons—with several, like the title, coming courtesy of late rap legend Tupac Shakur’s lyrics and poetry—and the script and direction can be much too obvious about laying those lessons down. In particular, Maverick’s earnest speechifying can be heavy-handed, although, generally, Hornsby carries off a compelling portrait of a committed dad with a checkered past and boundless love for his family. Hall plays it much more reserved as Lisa, judging the right moments to project the tenaciously protective mother’s bigger emotions.

Always a welcome sight, Issa Rae, star and creator of HBO series “Insecure,” pops in as April Ofrah, head of an activist organization called “Just Us for Justice” that rallies behind Starr as she contemplates testifying before a grand jury about the shooting. Building to the climactic jury decision, the film, seemingly concerned with relaying the point of view of nearly every character that’s been introduced, runs too many laps around the track. But, on the strength of its authentic storytelling voice and galvanizing lead performance, The Hate U Give delivers a powerful message that all the rallying and rioting and impassioned pleas in the world won’t change anything if they fall upon deaf ears. Starr seems smart to wonder if anyone on the other side is ever truly listening.