Review: The Hate U Give (2018)
Number seven in The Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Programme states: ‘We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.’ Though the document was created by African-American political activists in 1966, this 2018 film is still upholding the same principles of founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in an attempt to disclose the disturbing reality of marginalised and disadvantaged ethnic groups in contemporary America. It’s a weighty, timely and significant issue presented through an inspirational young woman who has no choice but to use her greatest weapon – her voice.
When young adults have ‘The Talk’ with their parents, it usually means enduring an awkward discussion about their sexual health. For Starr Carter and her siblings, it signifies a more momentous milestone: being old enough to understand that they could be targets of prejudicial abuse from law enforcement officers. In the first scene of The Hate U Give, a sobering flashback depicts a black American family sat around a dinner table listening to their father, ‘Big Mav’ (fervently played by Russell Hornsby), who tells them in no uncertain terms that in the event that they are stopped by the police, they do exactly as they’re asked, and keep their hands where they can be seen. A reaction shot of nine-year-old Starr as she processes this information suggests that, sadly, she already knows why the conversation is necessary.
Fast-forward to the present and 16-year-old Starr (played by Amandla Stenberg) is just as observant. She is hyper-aware of her unusual advantage as a black girl in Williamson Prep, a private school. She modifies everything from her dialect to her facial expressions in an effort to not seem stereotypically ‘ghetto’ or ‘hood’ to her peers. She mutes her ‘blackness' to bridge the gap between the worlds in which two versions of her exist – in her majority-white school and in her black neighbourhood notorious for crime, Garden Heights. Though Starr is seemingly motivated by the need to please those she cares about in each world, she struggles to maintain an identity in either. For example, at a party in Garden Heights her friends tease her about her choice of clothes and assume she listens to indie and country music instead of rap and hip hop. Her consciousness of how others perceive her is made obvious through a voiceover as she walks through polished school corridors to the dreamy tune of Billie Ellish’s ‘Ocean Eyes’, but becomes even clearer as white girls gawp (in slow motion, no less) in bemusement at the sight of her interracial relationship with Chris (K.J. Apa).
Starr’s childhood friend Khalil Harris is introduced in a moment of need as she stands alone against the wall at a party in Garden Heights after refusing to get involved in a petty feud. Their chemistry is instant, innocent and endearing. Conversation about family members, memories and a scepticism over Khalil’s source of income indicates mutual care between old friends. Yet this is soon cut short at the sound of gun shots and the ensuing rush to safety. To the apt soundtrack of Tupac, on the ride home from the party the pair are stopped by a white policeman and Starr is forced to put her father’s early advice into action. In a truly horrifying scene, Khalil is shot dead by the officer and, for the second time in her life, Starr witnesses the murder of one of her best friends.
This moment is the catalyst for a sequence of harrowing, empowering and upsetting events. Understandably, it has an immense emotional and psychological impact on Starr, her family, the wider community and this translates with great depth to the audience too. For some, this is yet another unjust shooting and act of racism which means pooling together for the grieving family and staying strong for those close to Khalil. For others, it is merely a reason to ‘cut class’ for a pseudo protest or to retaliate with more violence. Issues of white privilege, justice and far bigger systemic issues rise to the fore as Starr debates how much of a role she should play in speaking out for Khalil – and subsequently the ever-increasing list of other innocent black people who have been mercilessly killed (Emmett Till and Michael Brown are two real cases which are alluded to through dialogue and Starr’s Tumblr blog).
The aftermath of Khalil’s death reveals much about the complexities of society and prompts audiences to ask several questions alongside the core characters: Why isn’t the murder of an unarmed teenager seen as a crime? Why is the life of the dead victim being questioned more than the actions of the police officer? Why does this keep happening?
A political activist named April Ofrah (Issa Rae) enters the narrative at a time when the helplessness of the people close to the victim is most intense and just when Starr needs a reminder of her strength. It is both honourable and sadly necessary for people to continue to fight against racism and cycles of hatred despite decades of persecution, and when Starr has this realisation, her acknowledgement of the wider implications of Khalil’s death is simple: “It’s about more than just Khalil. It’s about black people, poor people, everybody at the bottom.”
One of the things that the screenplay does well is to achieve a realistic balance between heartbreak and happiness. Amidst the gut-wrenching pain and struggle that so many of the characters are experiencing, there is love and laughter. Moments of joy and celebration are scattered amongst sadder scenes, even when Maverick displays signs of self-loathing or when Starr seems ready to implode with guilt. Resultantly, this film encourages a multitude of potent emotions: frustration, sadness, pride, bewilderment, sympathy. Starr’s tumultuous journey to empowerment in the face of fear is contagious and so, more importantly than making us feel, it has the potential to encourage even more people to be brave enough to speak up. In many ways, she represents the resilience of the black community and revives the possibility of change. It is encouraging and true to her name, provides light in a dark place.
Fans of the novel by Angie Thomas will be impressed that the narrative voice is closely echoed in the film and the characterisation of Starr is achieved by Tillman in an astonishing performance by Stenberg. Details from the book are lovingly included (the references to Harry Potter, Starr’s obsession with trainers, her relationship with Uncle Carlos) while major moments are realised into mesmerizing set pieces – the final protest scene in Garden Heights is somehow even more powerful on screen. There are several elements, however, that readers may miss: less action occurs in Maverick’s store, a character called Devante is removed from the script entirely and Maya’s (one of Starr’s school friends - an Asian character) experience of racism is omitted. Overall, as an adaptation of a best-selling novel, the source has been utilised as a way to educate and inspire even wider audiences and has created diverse young stars in the process (Amandla Stenberg, Algee Smith, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright and Sabrina Carpenter all shine in their respective roles).
We have all heard about a case of police brutality online or on the news, but due to the way events are reported - and the sheer amount of depressing news stories broadcast and published - it is all too easy to forget that behind those screens are individual people, individual lives and whole communities who are struggling. Though this story is fictional, multi-faceted, complex characters represent real communities and people – human beings – who all matter. George Tillman Jr. and his cast have effectively negotiated a profound and delicate topic so that audiences have the opportunity to mediate their views through the cathartic experience of Starr Carter and her family.
Verdict: A socially apt and compelling film with a distinct message on police brutality and racism. Hits home thanks to an abundance of stunning performances.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡
Director: George Tillman Jr.
UK release date: 20th October 2018