The Hate U Give
by George Wolf
The Hate U Give becomes one of the year’s better films not because it elevates an oft-maligned genre (though that fresh air blast certainly doesn’t hurt), but instead for how it wraps troubling, vital societal issues around an absorbing family drama.
Adapted from the best selling Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, the film slaps you with reality right from the opening, when a commanding father (Russell Hornsby) is giving his young children “the talk” – not about sex, but about how to survive when they are pulled over by the police. You may see this as either familiar or eyebrow-raising, and that is precisely the point.
Like so many YA dramas, THUG is anchored by a special young girl. Here, she’s Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), but Starr’s specialness isn’t a device that panders, it’s one that is intelligently used to illustrate two very different Americas.
She lives in a Georgia “hood” with her family, but attends a private Catholic school in the ‘burbs, and not, as her mother (Regina Hall) says, “because she needs to learn how to pray.”
On the ride home after a weekend party in her neighborhood, Starr becomes the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Detroit‘s Algee Smith). She’s reluctant to come forward for a variety of reasons (all logical), and as the pressure builds from different sides, reactions to the killing bring the contrasts between Starr’s two worlds into clear, illuminating focus.
Director George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed away just weeks ago) craft a thoughtful balance as the narrative progresses, cutting deeper via an impressive restraint that holds until the final few minutes hit a more tidy, didactic vein.
But when this film works, which is most of the time, it works wonderfully. Through Starr’s eyes (and yes, narration) we navigate heady terrain: white privilege, systemic oppression, Black Lives Matter, all lives matter, victim blaming, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation and liberal guilt. And Stenberg, leading a strong ensemble which also includes Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae and Common, rises to the material after some cookie-cutter YA fare (The Darkest Minds, Everything, Everything) with her best performance to date, moving Starr believably through grief, confusion, anger, defiance and hard decisions.
It’s character development that respects both the character and the audience. And in trusting that YA audience with some bitter pills, The Hate U Give becomes a required dose for the rest of us.