This review contains a few spoilers for the film, all of which were revealed in the trailer.
Can Coco Chanel’s rule of taking one thing off apply to a film? I feel that way a little bit about George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give. There’s lots to recommend about this film, based on Angie Thomas’s popular YA novel of the same name—the performances are excellent and it has an undeniable emotional resonance—but at some point, it all becomes a bit much. Too much didacticism. Too many character “types.” Too much melodrama. Still, the stuff it does well, it does really well.
The film tells the story of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), who essentially straddles two worlds: There’s her home in the fictionalized poor neighborhood of Garden Heights and there’s the fancy private school she attends with mostly white friends. Her parents have different goals for her: Her mother, Lisa (Regina Hall), wants Starr to rise up out of Garden Heights and never look back; her father, Mav (Russell Hornsby) wants her to stay rooted in who she is and where she comes from.
In some ways, Starr feels like two people. At school, she has a white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) and a white best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). She’s careful not to talk “ghetto”—“nah,” she says at one point, catching herself and quickly changing it to “no”—while her white friends all happily appropriate black culture, style, and slang.
One night she attends a party in Garden Heights with her good friend from the neighborhood, Kenya (Dominique Fishback), and runs into an old pal and crush, Khalil (Algee Smith), who is now dealing drugs to help support his family. Khalil is charming and handsome and they have history together. When a fight breaks out at the party, he offers to drive her home. Together, they flirt and reminisce and share a kiss. Starr backs away, tells him she has a boyfriend—but it’s clear she’s torn. A white cop pulls them over for making an illegal U-Turn and demands that Khalil step out of the car. Starr knows what to do—her father carefully taught her and her two brothers to keep your hands in plain sight, always obey commands—but Khalil keeps checking on Starr and moving around. Eventually, he reaches for a hairbrush that has fallen out of the car and the cop shoots and kills him.
I have to say, the deep, unflinching subjectivity of this scene—we see the entire event through Starr’s eyes—is harrowing. It will rock you to your core. It’s meant to have a seismic effect on the film and it does. There’s Starr before this happened and Starr after. Can she still be that girl who doesn’t want to call attention to her blackness?
So far, so good. I absolutely love the idea of a young woman finding her voice and her activist spirit after witnessing something so horrific. The scenes at home with Starr’s family emphasize both the familial warmth and love and the ongoing ideological tension between Starr’s parents—Lisa wants Starr to put the tragedy behind her; Mav wants her to express her anger in a productive way—and both King and Hornsby are excellent. Algee Smith is poised to be a star—a bit of light goes out of the film when he exits, intentionally so. Amandla Stenberg, in my opinion, already is a star—she has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, navigating Starr’s shifting personalities and emerging social consciousness, and she is more than up to the challenge.
But, like I said, The Hate U Give—the film is a reference to the secret meaning of Tupac's Thug Life—keeps gilding the lily. So we also have Anthony Mackie as King, the neighborhood drug kingpin who threatens Starr and her family if they don’t stay quiet. We have Common as Starr’s kindly police officer uncle. And we have Issa Rae’s April, a lawyer and civil rights activist who wants Starr to become the face of the protest. At school, we discover that Hailey is a closet racist who makes fried chicken jokes and worries out loud about the poor, suffering family of the white police officer. The super “woke” Chris says he doesn’t see color. (“If you don’t see my blackness you don’t see me,” Starr finally is able to protest.) Starr’s half-brother, Seven (Lamar Johnson), has to deal with a crackhead mother. And the film’s climactic scene—I won’t describe it here—has a bit of “what about the children??” tremulousness.
I felt, at times, that the film was ticking off boxes—too many for my taste. But that doesn’t take away from what the film does right. When it lands, it lands hard. Bring tissues—and lots of time afterwards to discuss the film with friends.