A film based on a young adult novel shouldn’t be this good. Strike that. A film based on a young adult novel should always be this good. A genre driven into the ground mostly by studio indifference, The Hate U Give shines as a beacon for what most other movies can be. A movie with a timely message, propelled forward by stirringly powerful performances. Even if occasionally its intentions trips things up in the process.
When we first meet Starr, she’s 6 years old, nervously seated at the dining room table. “When it happens, remain calm” her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) tells her. He wants to instill the correct way to react when pulled over by the police. Understandably shaken, it’s nevertheless an important lesson. Flashing forward ten years, Starr (an astounding Amandla Stenberg) is firmly entrenched in two worlds. There’s “Starr 1.0” who lives in Garden Heights. A struggling black neighborhood, it’s where she can be herself. At least to a degree. That’s because “Starr 2.0” navigates the halls of Williamson Prep, a private school populated by rich white kids. She goes there to avoid the traps so many have fallen into. Getting good grades,a part of the basketball team and smitten with a well-meaning white boyfriend (K.J. Apa), this Starr seems to have it all together. Hoping neither life dare cross paths.
One night, while at a house party, she runs into childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith). They’re long removed from the days of playing Harry Potter together. Diverging roads in life hasn’t made them any less close. Brimming with chemistry, the rest of the world melts around them. When a fight breaks out, the two flee the scene. While reconnecting on a leisurely drive, they’re stopped by the police. Starr’s training instinctively kicks in, as she pleads with her friend to follow suit. Taken outside the car by a nervous white officer, Khalil tries to act smooth in front of Starr, hoping to put her at ease. When he reaches for a hair brush, shots ring out, bringing his short life to a close, echoing all too familiar recent events.
In director George Tillman Jr.’s hands, Angie Thomas’ novel absolutely sings. His career has seemingly been leading here. Through Soul Food he understood how essential family bonds can be. With Men of Honor he showed the power of courage and color shining through systematic oppression and the narrow views of a supposedly open and free world. Now, they both collide and he measures each part evenly. Simultaneously engaging and enrapturing his audience. It’s a slippery slope, lean too far with one element, regardless the necessity in confronting the topics and the whole thing topples. In The Hate U Give Tillman Jr. proves himself to be an expert tightrope walker.
There are no easy answers within The Hate U Give, as it examines Starr’s desire to be true to herself, when everyone makes her question exactly what that should be. An activist attorney (Issa Rae) shows up, wanting not only for Starr to testify before a grand jury, but also for her to be in a voice in unjust times. Exposing her roots means alienating herself at school. Standing up and telling not only the truth, but also the truth about Khalil, means ostracization from her community. Worse, it means opening herself up to attack by King (Anthony Mackie), a local gang leader. Thankfully the film isn’t quick to have her make up her mind, as she considers the consequences at hand. That may seem like a lot, but by casting her in this light, it makes the film around her special.
If Starr is the heart of the movie, her parents are the backbone. Maverick, a former Black Panther and gang member, set himself on the straight and narrow. He owns the corner store, a pillar of the community, as a means of getting them out of a system he knows wants only to grind them up. Lisa (Regina Hall) is a more hardened version of her daughter. Moving from Garden Heights when she was young, she’s wants to push her kids to get out as soon as possible. Even if she’s a little too forceful, at times.
Threatening to hold The Hate U Give back, is a feeling of almost too much grandstanding. It’s perfectly effective when contained to smaller moments. After all, this is a film with a message. When it remembers this too is a coming of age story, things pause to catch its breath. Starr’s dual nature plays a part in things and is key to what makes her viewpoint different. It also lies at the heart of the film’s title. “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*#@s Everything”. The Lyrics made famous by Tupac Shakur, are essential to the story. Two different times their meaning explored, showing the growth of Starr’s views in the process. To get there though, the film relies too heavily on one of cinemas most over used devices: first person narration.
Tillman Jr. and his cast craft a film that constantly rises above the parts that should be its undoing. The background as a piece of young adult literature isn’t a detractor here. While adults may play big parts in the proceedings, it’s the teens it wishes to speak to. Teens it wants to hear its message. Of a hopeful future for those willing to act through the most powerful weapon in their arsenal: their voice. Sure that’s may sound a tad hokey, but doesn’t make it any less true. Nor does it mean it’s any less impactful. In the hands of The Hate U Give, it simply works. A film based on a young adult novel should always be this good.