Written by Audrey Wells, based on the novel by Angie Thomas, and directed by George Tillman, Jr., “The Hate U Give” acts like a gut punch. It is a movie that feels as though it perfectly exists in our world, right down to the horrible reality of it all.
Amandla Stenberg is front and center in the cast as Starr Carter, a high schooler who has to negotiate both her ritzy prep school and the poor neighborhood in which she lives. She has to figure out how to transition between the two, what is appropriate in one place but not the other, and what person she has to be in either to survive in both. It is a difficult task to be sure, and one made far more difficult as she finds herself the only witness when a police officer shoots and kills her best friend from childhood, Khalil (Algee Smith), during a traffic stop.
At that point, with Khalil having been armed only with a hairbrush, the story erupts. Starr has to decide whether she should testify at the grand jury, whether she can tell her friends she was there, and whether she should give an interview to the press. What will be the result of her talking?
If Dick Wolf will forgive the characterization, the movie feels “ripped from the headlines,” particularly as the press and police start to focus on Khalil’s history of drug dealing for the local gang leader, King (Anthony Mackie). That history was, undoubtedly, unknown to the police officer who shot him during the traffic stop. It is, in short, wholly irrelevant (kind of like a man being shot in his own apartment when a police officer mistakes it for her place and then reports coming out that the deceased had marijuana in said apartment).
It is incredible to watch as Starr awakens to her new reality and tries to assess what everyone, including her parents—Lisa (Regina Hall) and Mav (Russell Hornsby)—expect from her. Sumpter gives an amazing performance here, offering Starr’s horror and heartbreak in ways that feel perfectly real.
The only major misstep is the growing story in Starr’s high school. Her best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), reacts poorly to Starr’s outward changes (she does not know what is causing them). Hailey is not a particularly deep character and so her upset at Starr’s shift feels overly simplified. Perhaps it is because the movie doesn’t spend enough time on the friendship early on or perhaps it is simply not well developed at the crucial moment, but it rings false. The audience has too little insight into Hailey and her world, and the changes in the friendship must hurt, but it feels all too easy.
Perhaps as a way to attempt to mitigate this too-easy clash, “The Hate U Give” also offers up the opposite way that such a friendship could progress. We see this with Starr’s boyfriend from the school, Chris (K.J. Apa), proving himself to be an intelligent, accepting person, but it is no better to watch unfold. Starr is dealing with so much at home with her family (which also includes a brother and a half-brother), that the school friendships—even the romance—falls flat.
We know the film can do better than this. We see it do better just about everywhere else. Starr has an uncle, played by Common, who is a police officer. “The Hate U Give” explores his mixed feelings about the incident and the tension between him and Starr’s immediate family.
The movie reaches its emotional high points during a community protest and its aftermath. Tillman handles these moments in a visceral fashion. One is compelled to watch, and compelled to root for Starr to change the minds of the world, and yet it is all too clear from the start where things are going.
In these moments, too, Sumpter is outstanding. The movie may have a realistic feel, but without an actress who can bring Starr to life none of it would work. Kudos must also go to Hall and Hornsby who offer wonderful portrayals of Starr’s parents. They exude the love and fear that any parent would feel in such a situation.
“The Hate U Give” is a lovely, heartbreaking, movie. Audiences will shake their head as they leave the theater, knowing that the world we live in can be unnecessarily cruel and hoping that there are more Starr’s out there to help set things right.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox