What does it take to make a Black teenager who has been trying to make nice in her nearly all White private school realize that sometimes there is no middle ground — that she has to take action? That’s the essential plot in “The Hate U Give.” The film is based on the young adult novel of the same name by Mississippi-born writer Angie Thomas. The title comes from Tupak Shakur’s album “Thug Life,” which stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” referring, of course, to the effect of racism on our society.
In this case, the incident that moves Starr Carter from a double life — hip in her Black neighborhood, quiet and restrained in her elite school — is one that we’ve heard about more times than we can count. A White policeman pulls a Black male teenager over for a traffic stop. The teen, Khalil (Algee Smith), picks up an innocuous object — in this case, a hairbrush. The next thing you know, he’s shot dead. As one character in the film puts it, the weapon the cop feared was not what he thought Khalil was holding; it was his Blackness.
In a superb acting job, Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, Khalil’s friend from childhood who witnesses the shooting and is forced to decide how far to stick her neck out to get justice. At first, she tries to stay anonymous and avoid public interviews. She tells nobody at school, not even her unbelievably supportive White boyfriend, played rather woodenly by KJ Apa. As she realizes that the media are more interested in whether Khalil was a drug dealer than whether there was any justification for his murder, she is moved to speak out. Eventually, this quiet girl joins a Black Lives Matter march on the police station, gives an impassioned speech to the protesters and ends up in a street battle with the police.
George Tillman Jr.’s movie does well portraying the emotional stress and inner conflict of raising a Black family in a White world. Early on, Starr’s ex-con father Maverick, played convincingly by Russell Hornsby, sits his three kids down and gives them “the talk” about how to interact with police. “Keep your hands visible at all times,” he says. Faced with a demonstration after Khalil’s funeral, he takes his family home rather than put them at risk. A successful convenience store owner, he acquiesces when his wife Lisa (Regina Hall) wants to send the kids to a private school rather than the public high school where it’s easy to buy drugs. Yet Maverick also makes his kids memorize the Black Panthers’ 10-point program, including “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.” And when Starr decides to go public with what she saw, he’s behind her.
Much of what happens in the movie is predictable, from the “talk” about police to Starr’s best friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) excusing the killing because Khalil dealt drugs to Starr’s Uncle Carlos (Common), a cop on the force, explaining how the police need to assert their authority in a dicey situation. Carlos’ excuses, though, lead to an epiphany when he admits that he would shoot first when feeling threatened by a Black man, but say “put your hands up” when feeling threatened by a White in a similar situation.
Tillman makes the drama of the situation real, especially the trauma of watching a friend murdered in front of you. Khalil’s death is so abrupt it is shocking, even as it seems familiar. The way the officer treats Starr after the shooting is doubly shocking. She later wonders if he wished he’d killed her too, rather than left her alive to testify to the grand jury.
Unfortunately, the movie falls short in a few ways. One is the frequent product placement of the Nike swoosh (how much money did Nike pay Fox Studios, anyway?). Another is a fairly extraneous and unlikely subplot involving a longtime drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who is unaccountably upset that Starr mentions him on TV as the drug lord who was Khalil’s boss (surely the police would already know about that?). The subplot takes over the climax of the movie and comes uncomfortably close to suggesting that if Black people would just clean up their communities, the police wouldn’t be so inclined to shoot them. That subtext contradicts the overt message in the movie that there is no excuse for the number of police shootings of Blacks.
Also disappointing is that there’s no sense at the end that Starr plans to continue as an activist. The resolution of the drug gang subplot, in which the community finally feels empowered to testify against gang members, substitutes for resolving the issue of police brutality. Starr goes back to her elite private school, presumably more upfront about her “real” self and more clear about which of her White friends are allies and which aren’t.
Author Angie Thomas explores police brutality through unapologetically Black YA novel
A conversation with Ijeoma Oluo, author of "So You Want to Talk About Race"
Check out the full Oct. 24 - 30 issue.
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