D: George Tillman Jr / 128m
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Issa Rae, K.J. Apa, Lamar Johnson, Sabrina Carpenter, Dominique Fishback, Megan Lawless, Common
Starr Carter (Stenberg) is a sixteen year old black girl living in a predominantly black neighbourhood – Garden Heights – but who attends a predominantly white prep school, Williamson. One night, while at a party, she reconnects with a childhood friend, Khalil (Smith). Later, as Khalil takes her home, they’re pulled over by a white police officer, who insists Khalil gets out of the car. When Khalil reaches into the car for a hairbrush, the officer thinks he’s going for a gun, and reacts by shooting Khalil dead. The shooting causes a local outcry, but Starr’s involvement is kept a secret, even from her best friends (Carpenter, Lawless) at Williamson, and her white boyfriend, Chris (Apa). But as racial tensions increase, and Starr is required to testify before a grand jury, matters are further complicated by the attentions of local gang leader, King (Mackie), who doesn’t want Starr saying anything about Khalil selling drugs for him. Torn between keeping quiet and not putting herself or her family at risk, and honouring Khalil’s memory, Starr must find the courage to chart a course that ensures she does the right thing…
A contentious and powerful adaptation of the novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give doesn’t shy away from tackling some pretty serious issues, and does so in spite of its YA backdrop, proving that the genre can address issues beyond dystopian futures and awkward romantic entanglements. And while the continuing effects of cultural and political racism are front and centre, the movie also delves into topics such as social deprivation (Garden Heights isn’t exactly an affluent neighbourhood), peer pressure, police accountability, gang culture, cultural appropriation, and political activism. It’s a heady brew, and as such, a challenge for any one movie to assimilate without running the risk of minimising the impact or importance of any one aspect at the expense of the others. But Audrey Wells’ screenplay is one of the best literary adaptations of recent years, and it addresses each issue succinctly and with a great deal of care, and ensures that the viewer understands the effects that each issue has on the characters. Whether it’s the injustice felt by a community that has already seen too many people die unnecessarily, or Starr’s increasing unhappiness at the way her friends behave as “black” because it’s “cool”, the movie refuses to treat these issues lightly, or inappropriately (as the kids at Williamson do).
With the script locked in, it’s left to the performances to amplify the importance of the issues the movie explores. As Starr, Stenberg gives one of the best performances of the year, courageously tackling her role head on, and always finding the emotional truth in any given scene. It’s such a mature portrayal, so nuanced and impressive, that on the rare occasions Starr isn’t the focus of a scene, you can’t wait to have her back. There’s fine support from Hall and Hornsby, and Smith proves that his break-out performance in Detroit (2017) wasn’t a flash in the pan. Tillman Jr has assembled a powerful, hard-hitting movie, but despite the quality of Wells’ script and the quality of the performances, it’s a movie that is often more effective in its quieter moments than when it seeks to escalate the tensions inherent within it. A protest march that descends into violence feels timid in relation to the emotions it’s engendered, while the sequence where Starr and Seven are trapped in their father’s burning store is over before any real threat to their lives can be allowed to create any tension. Minor bumps in the road such as these, however, do serve to distract from the good work the rest of the movie revels in, and as they come in the last half hour, unfortunately they undermine some of what’s gone before. But even so, this remains an intense and vigorous exploration of issues that rarely get addressed with this much clarity and confidence.
Rating: 8/10 – despite a few narrative leaps and bounds designed to wrap things up more quickly than necessary, and a few soap opera moments that always feel out of place, The Hate U Give is a vivid, potent examination of America’s continuing racial divide; with its superb central performance, and its ability to tackle complex issues without resorting to being dogmatic or condescending, it’s a significant reminder – as if it has to be said – that all lives matter.