In the last few years, Fox 2000 Pictures has developed a line in sturdy, engaging, young-adult adaptations that play with teen melodrama and “issue” storytelling. And The Hate U Give is the best yet.
The Fault in Our Stars was the Ur-text, then Paper Towns, last year’s underrated Love, Simon and now The Hate U Give, from Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel. The film reminded me intensely of Love, Simon, with its arc of a teenager settling into a stable identity and owning their own experiences, and its emphatic exploration of a young person struggling with how to speak their own truth. But The Hate U Give burns at a higher temperature.
Director George Tillman Jr brings experience with black-orientated stories (Barbershop, Notorious) and screenwriter Angie Thomas, who sadly passed away this month, brings a passion for strong, complicated female voices, together producing a politically evocative, millennial-orientated, emotionally honest story about race, police brutality, and the dilemmas of resistance.
Like any teenager, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) doesn’t really know how she is, but this confusion is embedded in differences of race and class. Starr’s family lives in the poor, African American area of Garden Heights, with its small businesses, trap soundtracked parties and tough drug boss King (Anthony Mackie). But there’s another Starr; the one that attends Williamson, an all-white high school with plaid skirts, extra credit class and the weightless, vanilla privilege of a demographic who never really have to worry about something awful and unjust happening to them. Schooled in the expressive Jujitsu of code-switching and head-bowing to the police, Starr lives with the self-consciousness of someone who can’t be too threatening, too loud or too “ghetto”.
When driving home from a party with her crush and childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith), the two are pulled over. When he reaches through the car window for something the cop panics and shoots on sight, leaving him bleeding out on the tarmac. Khalil’s death ignites the grievances of the black community, and the national media floods in to get footage of the protests that kick off. Starr is the only witness and there’s going to be a grand jury to determine if the officer is to stand trial. Everyone around her is talking about it, but Starr, conditioned to not make a fuss, is going to have to decide if telling her truth is worth the inevitable fallout, and if it’s even going to make a difference in the end.
Two things strike you watching The Hate U Give. The first is how routine and familiar the vocabulary around American police shootings and Black Lives Matter has become, thanks to incredibly short media cycles and the memification of online speech. The Hate U Give fleshes out the small details; the police interview that pivots immediately to questions of the victim’s character, or the pouring of milk over eyelids to sooth the sting of tear gas.
The second is that there are black conversations that the average filmgoer is still not used to seeing in relatively big studio releases. The Carter family spacing out their hands on the dinner table to practice hands-on-dashboard etiquette, or invocations of Tupac that bring a class critique to the problems of the Heights neighbourhood. Indeed, the film’s interest in structural injustice makes the tidy resolution of the climax feel even more like an artificial concession to genre.
Key here is Russell Hornsby as Starr’s father Maverick, giving an intelligent, despairing, fierce performance as a man committed to his children knowing their worth in a world that wants them to feel like they have none. There’s a moment when he lines them up in the yard and has them recite the Black Panther’s 7th demand that’s genuinely electric and desperate. YA melodrama can feel solipsistic with its hyper-emotional teen leads, but The Hate U Give locates them in a lived-in world, with excellent turns from Regina Hall as Starr’s mother, and Common as her Uncle, whose experience on the beat has produced in him a compromised, pragmatic approach to colour and traffic stops.
The Hate U Give frames racism along the lines of privilege and selective ignorance, as opposed to outright supremacist villainy. The white classmate whose sympathies instinctively jump to the cop (“their lives matter too, you know”), or the well-meaning but naive white boyfriend who “doesn’t see colour”. “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me”, Starr reminds him. Again, the film gets how race can amplify and, on a story level, stand in for, near universal teen anxieties about not being understood or accurately seen.
It’s Starr’s show, and Stenberg is the engine of the film’s gripping rhythms. Her shock and disbelief morphs and cascades into righteous anger and self-acceptance; the boiling tension of the Heights community refracted and personalised in her ticking-clock inner whirlwind.
She’s not a star, she’s a supernova. Conor Smyth
The Hate U Give is out on wide release.