In The Hate U Give’s opening scene, a young Starr Carter receives “the talk.” Not the “birds and the bees,” but rather the “keep your hands where you can see them” talk in case she’s pulled over by the police. Her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) insists that Starr and her half-brother Seven (and later her youngest brother Sekani) learn these lessons now, as it is almost certain that they will be stopped in the future. “Know your rights, know your worth,” he says, much to his wife Lisa’s (Regina Hall) chagrin, before giving them a copy of the Black Panthers 10-Point Plan to memorize.
This opening establishes a harsh, but familiar consensus about systemic racism: it’s unavoidable, so be prepared. Years later, a teenage Starr, played by Amandla Stenberg, attempts to skirt these problems by existing between two worlds. One is her home in Garden Heights: a lower-class neighborhood with its share of drug and violence problems. It’s also where Maverick runs the local grocery store, a reward for serving prison time on behalf of his former gang, the King Lords. The other is Williamson, a mostly white prep school where you can receive an education without worrying about the aforementioned problems. Here, she’s Starr 2.0: a “safer” version of Starr who rarely causes enough problems to appear “ghetto” amongst her boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) and friend Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter).
For Starr, having this dual identity is a nightmare. Forced to suppress her racial identity in school and unable to fully embrace it at home, her only way to avoid drawing attention is to keep the identities separate. However, after getting a ride home from a party by her childhood friend Khalil, they collide in the worst possible way. Their call is pulled over by a police officer who, in a scenario that feels all too familiar, shoots Khalil under the assumption that he was drawing a weapon. Turns out it was just a hairbrush.
The shooting itself is a harrowing moment, with Starr, having been handcuffed by the officer, forced to watch her friend bleed out on the road. Yet her troubles don’t end there. As the shooting’s only witness, Starr must speak in front of a grand jury to determine whether the officer will be indicted. This means divulging everything about Khalil’s life, including his time working for Garden Heights’ local drug lord King (Anthony Mackie), someone whose relationship with Starr’s family is unorthodox to say the least.
It’s hard not to watch The Hate U Give, an adaptation of Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel, and see director George Tillman Jr. portray every excuse used to justify similar instances of police brutality. The detectives interviewing Starr focus more on Khalil’s actions that night than the officer’s decision; an anonymous TV interview singles out the drug dealers in Garden Heights rather than the victim’s life, as if to suggest Khalil’s death was the result of criminal activity. Williamson’s student body proves little better, with many of Starr’s classmates using a half-day in Khalil’s “honor” to goof around rather than demand any legal repercussion. Most disturbing of all is Kayleigh’s callous reaction to her friend’s loss, her rhetoric mirroring your standard cable news All/Blue Lives Matter spokesperson.
Caught in the middle of these chaotic public reactions is Starr, who’s encouraged by activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae) to be the voice of her deceased friend. But doing so means entering the public spotlight and giving people a face to either pity or threaten, depending on how much her testimony upends the status quo. Stenberg shines in this film, balancing a quiet rage at societal injustices with the uncertainty of a teenager forced to deal with these problems firsthand. As a participant of two communities, she understands both the benefits of privilege and the uncomplicated nature of a problem that America remains unable, or unwilling, to mend.
That’s not to say The Hate U Give’s narrative is gloomy from the moment tragedy strikes. There are occasional moments of levity and humor to break up the tension, with one standout joke where Maverick compares Hogwarts houses to gang camaraderie. Likewise, the reoccurring presence of Starr’s Uncle Carlos (Common), a police officer, adds a more complex dimension to the shooting storyline. Late into the film, Carlos attempts to explain the mindset police officers undergo during similar confrontations, as if to make viewers understand why one might be quick to draw their gun. It’s a nuanced argument in theory but, as Starr points out, can’t help but fall victim to racial double standards.
These conflicts collimate in a final protest whose imagery feels eerily similar to the 2014 Ferguson protests-turned riots. The masses’ pent up frustration at a system that seems destined to undermine them rears its head again, and it’s here that Starr fully dedicates herself to the movement. I’d make a statement about avoiding spoilers, but these scenarios have already played out too often to feel “shocking.” Needless to say, it’s gripping.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
At the center of The Hate U Give’s story is a girl trying to protect her family and honor a friend, all while dealing with a conflict that highlights our country’s judicial failings. Never once does the film back down in its Black Lives Matter-themed call for change, regardless of what obstacles the characters endure. Thanks to Stenberg and the cast’s performances, this political journey successfully feels like an extension of Starr’s matured willingness to take a stand. This is easily one of 2018’s best.