The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr., 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
Based on the eponymous 2017 young-adult novel by Angie Thomas, itself inspired by the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s THUG LIFE tattoo (Shakur said the letters stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F**** Everybody”), George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give is a moving account of an African-American community dealing with the police shooting of an innocent young man. Though overly prone to broad strokes and occasional stereotypes, the movie – from a script by Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun) – mostly succeeds in raising important issues in a manner sure to be accessible to a diverse audience. With an appealing cast and a sharp wit (to balance the tragedy), director Tillman (The Longest Ride) keeps the story engaging, throughout.
Indeed, this is a film with both a strong message and well-realized narrative, helped along by a winning central performance from Amandla Stenberg (As You Are) as Starr, lead character and narrator. She’s 16, living a normal-enough teenage life, except that every day her mother drives her and her two brothers outside of their depressed urban neighborhood to a nearby, mostly white, private school. We find out eventually why mom decided to place her kids there, but in the meantime, this sets up Starr for a double life, very much one way at school and another way back home. Hyper-aware of the role of race in life – the film opens with her loving father, an ex-con, giving the kids “The Talk” about how to avoid being killed by police – she successfully navigates her two identities, with friends in both places. Everything changes, however, when a close childhood pal is shot by a cop.
From there, both Starr’s worlds collide in explosive ways, her carefully managed behaviors no longer relevant or helpful. The film handles this shift admirably well, showing Starr’s transition from passive to active participant in her own life as an ultimate positive, no matter the fraught journey. But to get to a better future, Starr, along with her family and acquaintances, friends and enemies, must first face the immediate consequences of her decisions to testify in court and protest in the street. Stenberg – a magnetic presence – is ably supported by an ensemble that includes Common (Love Beats Rhymes), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), Russell Hornsby (Fences), Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) and Algee Smith (Detroit), among others. This is gripping drama, ripped from today’s (and yesterday’s, but hopefully not tomorrow’s) headlines.
It’s not perfect, by any means, starting with Anthony Mackie’s perpetual scowl. A usually gifted actor, Mackie (Shelter) plays the big bad drug dealer who haunts the area, former employer to Starr’s father and one of the many who wishes Starr would shut up. Unfortunately, not only is his part underwritten (one can imagine the script’s slug line, “gangster,” informing his performance), but part of the oversimplification of the complexities of city life. To top it off, his wife is a hackneyed trope of her own, preferring the pleasures of alcohol to the responsibilities of caring for her children (I owe a debt to a university colleague, Dr. Heather E. Harris, who saw the film with me, for pointing out the prevalence of this particular black stereotype).
At least Hall and Hornsby, as an adoring longtime married couple (Starr’s parents), counter those images with a beautiful, positive story of their own. Other problems exist, mainly to do with reductive dialogue that fast-forwards us through intricate scenes (like the moments between Starr and her white boyfriend), but overall the story remains compelling and profound. The Hate U Give, then, occasional clumsiness aside, offers love and commitment as the antidote to that which ails us. Hard to argue with that.