Given the prevalence of questionable shootings involving police officers and African-Americans in recent years, it’s no wonder that filmmakers are starting to make multiple movies on the topic. This year has already seen two — Blindspotting and Monsters and Men — and now comes what might be the best one yet, The Hate U Give.
Based on the 2017 novel by Angie Thomas, the film centers on Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), an African-American teenager. Growing up in Garden Heights, an impoverished area of a fictional city, she has experienced more than her fair share of crime and heartbreak. Her parents (Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall) attempt to shield her from the influences of her neighborhood by sending her and her brothers to a mostly-white private school on the other side of town.
That changes when she is in the car with her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) when he is shot and killed by a white police officer during a seemingly routine traffic stop. Thrust unwittingly into a choice of testifying against the police officer, which would bring her unwanted notoriety, or remaining quiet, Starr struggles to figure out which is the right thing to do. Not helping matters is her inability to confide in her boyfriend or friends at school, who have no concept of the stress she is under.
When a movie starts with an African-American man teaching his children the proper behavior for when they inevitably get pulled over by the police, you know you’re in for a powerful experience. Directed by George Tillman, Jr. and written by Audrey Wells, the film refuses to shy away from the stark realities of day-to-day life for someone like Starr.
There is no sugar-coating of the complexities of the situation that Starr finds herself in, either. She is faced with pressures from seemingly every corner of her life, ones which would make any person crumble with fear and/or anxiety. The story acknowledges those fears but also finds a way for her to credibly overcome them.
That method is through her family, one which is both traditional and nontraditional. But no matter what shape her family takes, their most important aspect is their unconditional support, something she returns to again and again. That support extends to her community, which becomes more and more crucial as the film goes along.
There are a few plot contrivances, most notably the deterioration of Starr’s friendship with her white friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). While the rift is explicable, the way in which it is depicted strains credibility. Also not convincing is Starr’s relationship with Chris (K.J. Apa), something that could be explained by the part being recast and reshot after a controversy with the original actor.
The film contains great performances in most of its key roles. Stenberg has had a few notable parts, including as Rue in The Hunger Games, but this will likely be her breakout role. Her expressive face, radiant smile, and bonafide acting chops should have the 20-year-old in demand for years to come. Hornsby and Hall put in strong work as her parents, as do Common, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, and Lamar Johnson in supporting roles.
The Hate U Give is a necessary and urgent movie in a society that has yet to find a solution to the topics that it broaches. In the film, Starr is given her name as a way to bring light into a dark world, and one can only hope a film like this shines a light on the many ills that still need to be fixed.