It would be tempting to brush away the earnestness of The Hate U Give. To cast it aside as just another preachment yarn. But doing so would mean dismissing a powerful cry of anger and righteousness; a deeply felt and nuanced depiction of black consciousness.
George Tillman Jr. ’s The Hate U Give has the moral urgency and clarity of James Baldwin. His characters are clear and distinct in their frustration and pain. Based off a popular young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, it is a story about black lives lived.
Adapted for the screen by Audrey Wells, it shares a great many similarities to To Kill A Mockingbird. Both are about a young woman becoming aware of her place in the world. Coincidentally they both take place around a trial and the fear that justice will not be served. In both, the main character is a girl who seeks to embody the teachings of her father.
Of course, both deal with the plight of black Americans—Americans who have never felt like America was America for them. It is a story about the oppressed, by the oppressed, from the oppressed point of view. In today’s political climate The Hate U Give is as timely, necessary, and as rage-fueled as BlacKkKlansman or Sorry To Bother You.
The opening scene sees a family, the Carter’s, gathered around the dining room table. The father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is having “the talk” with his kids. “The talk” is what they should do when the police pull them over. He walks them through what to do, what to say, and how to behave. Afterward, he hands them a sheet, the Black Panther Ten-Point Program.
Starr (Amandla Stenberg) narrates and tells us about her father and her family. She tells us her father was a gang member for the King Lords gang run by King (Anthony Mackie). Now reformed he runs the local corner store in Garden Heights. The Hate U Give does many astounding things but one of the most is the choice to make Starr a reliable narrator.
Starr and her older brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and her younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) all attend a private school. It’s located in the upper class, mostly white Williamson. Starr confides in us that she has split herself into two distinct personalities. At school, she is Starr 2.0. She doesn’t use slang even though all her classmates do. Because she is aware if she uses the slang her friends use so freely it will be viewed not as slang but how “she talks”.
It’s called “code switching”, a common practice among the oppressed to better fit in with the mainstream majority. For example, gay people will act more straight in a predominantly straight environment. Not just in mannerism, but in how they dress and express themselves. It’s a form of basic survival.
Back in Garden Heights, Starr is herself, to a degree. She dresses less white but also less feminine. When she and her half-sister Kenya (Dominique Fishback) go to a party, she dresses in a baggy hoodie and jeans. Starr bumps into an old childhood friend and former crush Khalil (Algee Smith). A gun goes off at the party. Starr and Khalil leave and drive away. The two talk and Starr soon feels those old feelings coming back. Yes, she is dating Chris (KJ Apa) but he is from Williamson and thus part of a different world. Starr tells Khalil she is in a relationship and the young man backs off. “It’s okay. We have time.” He smiles.
Moments later they are pulled over by a cop. Starr remembers her father’s teachings and puts her hands on the dash, fingers spread. The situation escalates and ends with Khalil being shot. I mentioned the bravery of making Starr a reliable narrator earlier and here is where the courage becomes evident. A cop killing a black man, sorry, a black child, is a scene we’ve seen many times both in the news and the movies.
But in the movies, we are often given a sort of Rashomon structure. We are given multiple points of view while the objective truth of what happened is left up to the viewer. It’s a common storytelling trope but The Hate U Give isn’t having it. Starr sees what happened, we see what happened, therefore we know what happened. The incident in question is not up for debate. The officer who killed Khalil is never given a tearful scene of regret or even seen after the incident.
What follows is Starr’s attempt to reconcile the two versions of herself. She must come to terms with the power within herself. Starr’s mother Lisa (Regina Hall) wants the family to move. She loves Starr and doesn’t want to see her do something that will ruin her life. Something like, become known as “the witness”.
Remarkably The Hate You Give pulls off the most difficult of all cinematic feats. Tillman and Wells imbue their characters and story with nuanced point of views and volatile emotions. Situations spiral out of control in organic ways that are hard to predict. But Tillman recognizes above all the most powerful thing is a young girl’s realization of the power of her voice.
The Hate U Give is in fact a reference to Tupac’s Thug Life. Black Lives Matter and so do their voices. But it’s more than that. It’s the cumulative effect of trauma lived and witnessed by a people and how it affects them through their lives. Tillman uses the lyric “The hate u give little infants fucks everybody,” as the central thesis to the entire story. In other words, if a child grows up knowing nothing but fear and hate how can we be surprised if they grow up angry and violent. Tillman’s righteous fury at the systemic police oppression is palpable.
Amandla Stenberg is a name you would do well to remember. She has a presence and a wealth of talent and ability. I’m not one for making predictions but mark my words, Amandla Stenberg, is a movie star on the rise. Her ability to portray fierceness, vulnerability, humor, sometimes all at once, is stunning. Stenberg handles dialogue with the effortlessness of a seasoned pro. I don’t know how else to put it, the girl is remarkable.
Luckily for her, and everybody else in the cast and audience, The Hate U Give has Tillman. On the surface, the movie appears to be just a polished movie aimed at kids and teenagers. On the contrary, this is a masterfully crafted melodramatic epic aimed at everybody. The emotions spill out from the screen and into the audience.
Notice how Tillman and Mihai Malaimare Jr. have shot The Hate U Give. Williamson is bathed in calming blue hues. It’s a calm safe environment but it feels unnatural to Starr. To her, it is a sterile haven where she must watch and monitor every word and action. Where as Garden Heights is bathed in warm soft multi colored hues. It is soft and inviting, she is comfortable here.
As Starr becomes more and more involved in the events that unfold, Williamson begins to lose it’s cold sterile colors. It begins to resemble the lighting of Garden Heights. It is symbolic of Starr’s merging of her two selves into one.
The Hate U Give is so good you don’t even realize how good it is. It may not seem obvious but it is an impeccably crafted film. Everything from Tillman’s ability to get the best out of each and every one of his actors, including Common who while a gifted poet and musician, is not always the best actor. But here Tillman makes Common’s stiltedness work. He finds ways around around Common’s stiffness and utilizes it.
The editing by Alex Blatt and Craig Hayes is exemplary. Most editing, now and days, ranges from serviceable to abysmal. Pay careful attention to how they cut the scene where Maverick is frisked by the police. He is shoved against a restaurant window; his family on the other side watching in grim horror. I mention the editing because it’s easy to look at something like First Man or Mother! and applaud the technical aspects. It’s harder to notice them when they are designed, in effect, not to be noticed.
The scope of The Hate U Give is so vast but it’s aim so precise it’s difficult for me to wrap my arms around it. I’m an easy mark for crying at a movie but I must admit it’s been a few months since a movie has moved me to tears. The Hate U Give did so at least twice. It is a magnificently well made, entertaining, and very effective movie. In short; it’s damn near perfect.