The Hate U Give is a profound, vital and bold film.
Ripped-from-the-headlines films are tricky. Film-going is, for many, an act of escapism. So seeing the same subject on both the evening news and the big screen is less than ideal, particularly if the news itself ends up being more dramatic than its film counterpart. Therefore, the power of The Hate U Give is all the more profound; it is, in many ways, a chronicle of the America we are living in at this very moment, yet it also entirely succeeds as a cinematic experience.
Directed by George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food) and based off of the bestselling young adult novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a risky proposition in that it is aimed at a young adult audience but doesn’t emphasize romance, vampires, dystopia or wizards. However, Thomas, Tillman and screenwriter Audrey Wells all realize that today’s youth are more than capable of digesting a serious story, and their respect for their young audience is evident in this deep and nuanced production.
The Hate U Give’s plot follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a young black woman from the predominantly black neighborhood Garden Heights. Though she was raised in Garden Heights, Starr’s parents send her to school at the mostly white Williamson Prep. At home, Starr has black friends, including her oldest friend Khalil (Algee Smith). At school, Starr’s circle is almost entirely white, including her boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa). One of the film’s strongest threads is how it portrays Starr’s code-switching; everything from her words to her clothing changes as she navigates back and forth between her two worlds.
Starr’s parents are proudly African-American, however, her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and mother Lisa (Regina Hall) are both cautious and protective, particularly considering Maverick’s past experiences with the police. Fearing for her life, they’ve drilled into Starr how she should behave in front of the police. So, when Starr and Khalil are pulled over by the cops one night, Starr keeps her hands visible and defers to the police officers. Khalil, however, reaches for his hairbrush and is murdered by a police officer.
Though this part of The Hate U Give is filmed unflinchingly, it is what follows that really sets the film apart. By deciding to speak for the deceased Khalil, Starr finds her own voice, a voice that is not her mother’s or father’s, not her police officer uncle’s (Common) and not that of the lawyer who pushes her to tell her story (Issa Rae). Stenberg, who broke out in The Hunger Games but has been understandably stiff in her poorly-written leading roles sense then, is absolutely electric in these scenes. It is a star-is-born performance, as impressive as Jennifer Lawrence’s arrival in Winter’s Bone or Timothée Chalamet’s in Call Me by Your Name.
Though Stenberg is the standout, nearly all of the supporting performances are notable as well, particularly the chronically-underrated Hall, who brings such texture to her role as Starr’s rightfully fearful mother. And however excellent Issa Rae is in her HBO show “Insecure,” she shows a much wider range here than she’s hinted at before, displaying both a sensitive interior and a glass-sharp edge all at once.
The Hate U Give’s problems revolve almost entirely around Tillman’s attempts to jam too much of the book into film form. As a result, some of the longer speeches get a bit sermon-like and the runtime is about 20 minutes too long. And while there are excellent one-liners, they occasionally end up getting in the way of the strong scene-building Tillman and his cast have done.
Though overlong and occasionally clunky, The Hate U Give is a profound, vital and bold film. It has strong foundational support but manages to surpass its superb source material because of excellent performances, particularly from lead Amandla Stenberg.