Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Length: 133 Minutes
The Hate U Give is based on the novel of the same name by Angie Thomas. The film focuses on Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a 16 year old African American girl who lives in a fictional, mostly poor neighborhood but attends an affluent, mostly white school. Because her life is so divided, she has developed different versions of herself. There is the Starr her family and neighborhood friends see, and the Starr that her white classmates see. After she witnesses her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) die at the trigger happy hands of an overzealous cop, Starr is faced with how to stand up to institutions that perpetuate racism, which puts her in direct conflict with people in both of her worlds.
I went into this film having not read the book. I also managed to avoid spoilers even though this movie has been playing for about a month. This is a stunning experience. I had heard some praise for the film from several friends and was aware of its solid Tomatometer score, but my expectations were exceeded. The opening scene pulled me in and there was never a less than compelling minute from that moment until the credits rolled. In taking a closer look at real people often dismissed by law enforcement and Fox News as “thugs,” the film is comprehensive without being tedious.
I loved these characters. A lot of Hollywood films, particularly those based on young adult novels, have a strong central character surrounded by supporting characters who are one note. That’s not the case here. Every member of Starr’s family defies easy generalization. I don’t want to get into plot too much but I’ll say that the script, by Audrey Wells, explores police brutality by not just looking at the shooting and its aftermath, but how this violence exacerbates other crime problems in the neighborhood. I also appreciate that the story doesn’t veer off into any sort of redemptive arc for the cop who kills Khalil. There aren’t any of those forced, phony moments we see in other films where the cop and the witness have a moment where we think maybe the officer isn’t so bad. He has a rough job and is just jaded, as if that’s an excuse. In fact, after the shooting, we only see brief images of the officer through news footage. It’s a refreshing choice, and it’s about time.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the film is how vividly it depicts the relentless traps that Starr and her family must avoid every day. There is hardly a choice Starr can make after the shooting that won’t have life or death consequences for her family. Almost none of her white friends want to hear about that. They want to make themselves feel better by embracing Black Lives Matter during opportune moments, but don’t really want to examine their privilege. This is a film full of thought provoking observations for every member of the audience. Unfortunately, I don’t think the people that need to see it the most will seek it out or engage with the material with an open mind. I do think it will have a positive effect on young viewers and I hope more of them see it. The film has been doing okay at the box office and has just about recouped its budget, but it deserves to be doing better than that. My hope is that this becomes a sleeper hit, and if it doesn’t do much more in theaters, really takes off in rentals, streaming and (gonna date myself with this term) home video.
In terms of complaints, I don’t have many. I think the ending wraps things up too neatly considering the complex and difficult to tackle issues it raises up to that point. I understand though that this is based on a young adult novel and those tend to have more tidy resolutions than a Spike Lee or Jordan Peele script. There are also some minor technical issues. Filming outside sucks, but here there are brief shots that demonstrate what can go wrong when filming in daylight. There are times when the focus seems a bit off or the lighting in the background is bizarre. There is one scene where two characters are walking along a busy street and the background is so blurry and faded out it almost looked to me like rear projection or a crappy green screen. Then a car pulls up to the characters and it becomes clear neither of those effects were being used, there are just problems with focus and lighting. In other scenes, however, the technical qualities on display are enthralling. The protest in the film’s climax, though definitely kept at a PG-13 level in terms of blood, is quite intense. Cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr., whose previous credits include 2012’s The Master, uses light effectively as a an element of Starr’s character. He saves the most intense lighting for her, whether it’s the spotlight of a squad car aimed blindingly in her face or the sparks flashing from erupting tear gas canisters as police meet peaceful protesters with riot gear.
I highly recommend seeing The Hate U Give. While it’s characters and themes will still leave an impact if you stream this or buy the disc, I encourage you to seek out in a theater A dark room, a large screen and a potent surround sound system have a way of commanding attention the way a 50 inch Vizio cannot, and this is a story that deserves your full attention.