The Hate U Give is the film adaptation of the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas. A black teenage girl, torn between two worlds, witnesses an act of senseless violence. It is a story that pierces the heart of the racial divide in America. Thought provoking and emotionally resonant, The Hate U Give is unwavering in its honesty. Powerful is an understatement. There are scenes that will shake you to the core.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a bright, beautiful, sixteen-year-old girl. She’s one of the few black students at her elite, predominantly white prep school. Starr is popular, has a group of close girlfriends, and dates the cutest boy, Chris (K.J. Apa). She’s on the honor roll, athletic, promising in every regard. Starr’s school life is vastly different from her home life. Starr lives in the poor black neighborhood of Garden Heights. Starr’s parents (Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby) didn’t want her to attend the local schools. Her father, a reformed gang member, raised her to be a proud black woman. But he knew that the best chance for her future, would be where the wealthiest white children went to learn.
Starr goes to a local party. She reconnects with her childhood best friend, Khalil (Algee Smith). Starr loves Chris, but the attraction to Khalil is too strong. When a fight breaks out at the party, they leave together in Khalil’s car. An innocent ride for two teenagers turns murderous when they are pulled over by a nervous policeman. Starr’s carefully separated worlds brutally collide. Communities clash, friends turn, and a dangerous gang leader (Anthony Mackie) becomes a serious threat. Starr must decide to speak the truth for Khalil, and endanger every facet of her life. Or keep quiet, and allow a travesty of justice.
The police shooting of an unarmed black man is the primary driver of the story. Starr is horrified when her best friend at school, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), is completely unsympathetic. As her neighborhood erupts, Starr withdraws from Chris. How can she tell her father about her secret boyfriend, who just happens to be white. The turmoil Starr faces is wretched. She is pulled from all sides. Racism, socioeconomic divisions, interracial love, these are heady themes for anyone to deal with. Let alone a teenager who’s witnessed a murder. The Hate U Give tackles these issues unflinchingly. Starr must chart her own course through the maelstrom.
Empowerment, understanding, and courage are the virtues taught by the film. Starr is no shrinking violet. She finds strength in her values and unshakeable family bonds. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr with such conviction. The character’s journey is incredibly profound. Starr runs every emotional gamut. Stenberg is the linchpin of The Hate U Give. The story is so affecting because you believe and root for her. Hollywood rarely gives a voice to black female actresses. Stenberg deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance.
Director George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor, Notorious) does a masterful job. The Hate U Give could have easily descended into an after school special. Young adult stories careen into melodrama on the big screen. Tillman takes Starr seriously as a character. He trusts Stenberg’s talent and allows her to carry the film. The result is soul stirring.
I do take issue with how a specific character is represented. Hailey, Starr’s best friend, didn’t seem realistic to me. This is not a knock on Sabrina Carpenter, the actress that portrays her. The script by Audrey Wells and Tina Mabry has Hailey as repulsively one-dimensional, a cut out from Mean Girls. It’s implausible that someone who had genuinely cared for Starr, even though their relationship was flawed, be so vile and unfeeling after such trauma. Hailey becomes an easy villain in an otherwise well-written story.
The Hate U Give is a reflection of the times. Angie Thomas wrote the book as a reaction to the killing of Oscar Grant by a San Francisco cop. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station searingly told that story. How many Starr’s exist in real life? The daughters, girlfriends, best friends, of innocent men left to rebuild from tragedy. Equally, how many law enforcement families have been devastated after losing a loved one? Common ground exists through acknowledgment and practical measures. We’re not there as a country yet, but hopefully films like The Hate U Give help to bridge the divide.