Commentary
By Abby Olcese 10-15-2018

The Hate U Give, the Black Lives Matter-inspired drama based on Angie Thomas’ acclaimed novel, opens on a black family, sitting around a kitchen table. The father (Russell Hornsby), is teaching his kids what to do in the event they’re pulled over by the cops. The children put their hands on the table. They learn how to respond without looking suspicious. They recite the Black Panther 10-Point Program. Two of the kids, Starr and Seven, are in elementary school. The other is an infant.

It’s a sobering moment, but one that accurately sets the tone for the rest of the movie. For these characters, and for many black people in America, this is the way life is. Thomas’ novel won a plethora of praise and awards after its 2017 release for combining the social realities of life as a young black woman in contemporary America with a heartfelt coming-of-age narrative that resonated with a diverse array of readers. George Tillman Jr.’s film adaptation of the book, out now, admirably walks that same line. From every aspect, the film shows great respect for its source material, with an excellent script and stunning cast who clearly care about the story they’re telling.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, in an incredible performance), our heroine, lives in the inner city neighborhood of Garden Heights with her supportive family: her dad, Maverick (Hornsby), a reformed drug dealer, now a pillar of the community, her nurse mom Lisa (Regina Hall), half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and kid brother Sekani (TJ Wright). To make sure the kids get a quality education, Starr’s parents send her and Seven to a mostly-white prep school in the suburbs. Starr feels torn between the version of herself she is around her family, and the code-switching she’s pressured to do at school. She’s got friends, even a boyfriend (K.J. Apa), but she keeps the two parts of herself strictly separated.

At a neighborhood party, Starr runs into her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith). After a fight breaks out, Khalil gives Starr a ride home, but they’re pulled over by police on the way. Starr, terrified, follows the rules she’s been taught. Khalil doesn’t, and is shot and killed when the officer mistakes his hairbrush for a gun. As Khalil’s death becomes a national headline, the grieving Starr finds herself torn about how to react. As the only eyewitness, she alone can testify as to what happened that night. But as the cops and local drug lord King (Anthony Mackie) try to intimidate the Carters into silence, she’s worried that her testimony could put the people she loves most in danger.

From the moment of Khalil’s death onward, The Hate U Give is an emotionally intense ride, never once letting up. As Starr feels pulled toward sharing Khalil’s story and seeking justice for his shooting, she struggles more and more to keep the two parts of herself separated. Stenberg does an incredible job of portraying Starr’s emotional journey, particularly in relation to her prep school friends--the ones who show their true selves, as well as those who make an effort to be good allies. Both Starr’s bravery and anxiety are present in Stenberg’s performance at all times. It feels like a holistic portrait of a transformative experience in the character’s life, and, by extension, the many people with similar experiences she represents.

At the same time, there’s always some threat around the corner, whether it’s coming from Mackie’s King or from the police. After Khalil’s death, there’s not a scene in the film that doesn’t involve conflict, and it’s often violent. Starr has a positive experience introducing her boyfriend, Chris, to her family, followed immediately by someone shooting into the family’s home. The family goes out to dinner, only to be intimidated by King standing outside. The resulting conflict between King and Maverick ends with Maverick being hassled by the cops. The drama in The Hate U Give is always necessarily heightened, but with the film at over two hours long, it can sometimes feel exhausting.

But it’s hard to criticize the film for this, because that exhaustion is part of the point. The experience of Black Lives Matter protesters and organizers may not mirror Starr’s exactly, since The Hate U Give is a much neater narrative arc, tailored to a younger audience. But, as documentaries like Whose Streets show, it is an experience of constant confrontation and vigilance, frequently tempered by news of emerging injustice and tragedy. Feeling raw emotion like Starr’s all the time is exhausting, and the film does a good job of conveying some of that. 132 minutes isn’t nearly enough time to convey the pain that decades of systemic racial injustice continues to cause black communities today, but The Hate U Give does an incredible job with the time it has.

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic and writer based in Kansas. You can find her on Twitter @indieabby88.

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