It’s dispiriting, if more true than not, to keep hearing that the two sides of America have no more overlap, that we’re at fundamental odds, plugged into different news streams, different cultural-ideological values, different realities. And a pivotal way this degrades our discourse is that neither side feels like it has the luxury to look for shades of gray.
Yet one of the shockingly powerful things about “The Hate U Give,” a drama of racial discord that’s been playing to enthralled audiences and finally went wide this weekend, is that it unfolds in a moral zone that keeps forcing you to question what you think. The film is based on a young-adult novel by Angie Thomas, and excuse my prejudice if I confess that I don’t tend to go to YA movies to have my mind opened up about America’s racial complexities. Yet “The Hate U Give,” as directed by George Tillman Jr., from a script by Audrey Wells (who died, after a battle with cancer, the day before the film was released), is the rare racial drama that will detonate the complacency of even those who are drawn to see it. It’s that good, that searching, that fierce in its humanity.
It’s also a stunningly acted movie that never panders or settles for middlebrow piety. Its central incident is the police shooting of a young black man, and at moments it suggests a high-school version of “Fruitvale Station,” except that “The Hate U Give” is mostly about the aftermath of the shooting, and if anything it cuts even deeper into the meaning of a crime like this one — the intersecting layers of why it happens and how it ripples outward. The key to the film’s pull is that it’s a tale of injustice that’s really a drama of identity.
The heroine, 16-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), has grown up in the black Georgia neighborhood of Garden Heights but attends a mostly white and comparatively prosperous high school in an adjoining community. Shuttling back and forth between them has shaped her into a person with a dual image, almost a double agent: She’s still the girl she was growing up, but she’s also one who now feels as though she has to rein in her blackness at school. Even that dynamic is fraught with irony, since Starr’s white friends, including her boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), pride themselves, with a naïveté that’s at times comical, on how attuned they are to the nuances of African-American culture. Starr plays right along with them. She creates a white-friendly hip black version of herself, at once flaunting and concealing the person she is.
One night, she attends a party with her old hood friends, and after shots are fired she drives home with her childhood buddy Khalil (Algee Smith), who is now a drug dealer. They’re stopped by a cop, and Khalil, furious at being singled out because he’s black, won’t stop giving the officer attitude; when he reaches into the car for a hairbrush, the cop mistakes it for a gun and shoots. Khalil is dead, and Starr, the only witness to what becomes a nationally reported crime, has never felt more like she’s in hiding.
The title “The Hate U Give” comes from Tupac Shakur’s j’accuse aphorism “The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody” (i.e., THUG LIFE), and the movie is about tracing cycles of violence back to their racist American roots. But that doesn’t mean it traffics in easy, finger-pointing answers. If Starr testifies before the Grand Jury, she’ll wind up shining a spotlight on King, the drug dealer Khalil worked for, played by Anthony Mackie as a dead-cool brute. A lesser film would have turned this into a basic conflict between the desire to testify and the fear of retaliation.
That conflict is there, but “The Hate U Give” is also permeated with a dread-ridden awareness of how the drug trade can feel, for some, like the only way out. Starr’s father, played with soul-searching force by Russell Hornsby, is a former associate of King’s (after serving time in prison, he went straight and now owns a convenience store), and the tug-of-war between protecting his family and doing what’s right is suffused, in him, with a tattered loyalty to the what-happens-in-the-hood-stays-in-the-hood values he grew up with. Starr, though she’s the only witness to the shooting, is forced to keep that fact under wraps, to the point that her secrecy becomes more than a survival tactic. It also reflects a deeply buried shame, which explodes, at last, when she suffers the indignity of seeing her white schoolmates skip class to stage a Black Lives Matter protest. This is a movie that has the guts to make middle-class white wokeness look like deluded narcissism.
And yet it’s not as if the film is demonizing Starr’s classmates. In “The Hate U Give,” to quote Jean Renoir’s famous maxim, everyone has his reasons. That extends even to the cop who committed the shooting. In a scene that can only be called brave, Common, who plays Starr’s policeman uncle, explains to her how the situation might have looked from the cop’s point-of-view, and when she replies with fury, asking him if he would say the same thing about a cop who stopped a white drug dealer in a Mercedes, he answers, “It’s a complex world.” That’s an extraordinarily daring thing for a movie about a police shooting to suggest.
The exchange between Starr and her uncle hinges on the issue of how much we see race, and how much we should (or shouldn’t). That becomes the defining problem for Starr and her friends, and for Starr herself. She wants to be viewed as the young African-American she is, but she doesn’t want to be ghettoized. She wants to be seen as an individual, but she doesn’t want to get trapped in the bogus privileged feel-good dream that she can simply transcend color. As long as she exists in a world where she’s one wrong move away from being the victim of a police shooting, that’s a white fantasy.
By the end of “The Hate U Give,” Starr has come out in the open; she’s traveled a path and found a more hard-won sense of how the person she is inside and the person who others see can find a harmony. Amandla Stenberg makes that journey at once stirring and psychologically riveting. This is a performance everyone should see, because it’s a powerful balancing act of pride and anxiety, self-assertion and self-doubt, triumph and desolation. Starr Carter is one of the most fully felt characters I’ve seen in a movie this year, and by the end of “The Hate U Give” she seems to be pointing the way for all of us: to a better world that can only be built one anguished personal reckoning at a time.