It's easy to see why Angie Thomas' novel, The Hate U Give
, has remained on the New York Times Bestseller List since it was published back in February 2017. The story not only obviously resonates with young readers, but it touches on a very prominent social issue in police brutality. And now, with this heartfelt and engaging film adaptation, it has a chance to resonate even more. Director George Tillman, Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed away right as this film was hitting theaters) have captured the raw emotional power of Thomas' book, and brought it to life in probably the best way possible, with a cast that simply can't be faulted.
The film is essentially a coming of age story, and follows 16-year-old Starr Carter (a wonderful Amanda Stenberg) as she introduces us to the two worlds she lives in during the film's opening moments. Starr lives with her family in the largely black community of Garden Heights, where gangs and poverty are pretty much a fact of life to the people who live there. Her parents send her and her two brothers not to the local schools, but clear across town to the mostly white and upper class school, where Starr will be safer and perhaps get a real education. In narration, Starr tells us that there are two completely different versions of her. The one she shows to her family and friends in Garden Heights is the real her. At school, she feels she has to be non-threatening and act differently. This, of course, puts Starr in a difficult situation where she does not really belong in either social circle, and that she has people eye her differently because she knows she does not belong no matter where she is.
In the film's opening scene, Starr is nine, and her stern father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is teaching her what to do if a cop car ever pulls her over. He tells her to put her hands on the dashboard, make no sudden movements, and do as the officer says without argument. It is a key to survival for Starr, and in a way, she uses this in everyday life. She does not offend, she does not speak out, and she does not argue. Be pleasant, and the wealthy kids at her prominently white school will maybe respect her. She has a boyfriend at school named Chris (K.J. Apa), but despite having friends and acceptance in both social circles she frequents, Starr never truly feels like she belongs anywhere. Then, while attending a party in Garden Heights, she has a run-in with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith). He was her first crush, and they talk and reminisce about the old days, and about Khalil's current life. He lives with his grandmother who has cancer, and so he's been helping out a gang in order to make money for her hospital needs. Their reunion is interrupted when a fight breaks out at the party, and he offers to drive her home.
On the way home, they have a run in with a cop car who pulls them over for an unknown reason. Khalil gets defensive with the officer, while Starr tries to keep him in check, remembering her father's words on what to do in the situation. At some point, Khalil reaches for a hairbrush, the cop mistakes it for a weapon, and fires upon him, killing him almost instantly. The remainder of the film deals with Starr's complex feelings dealing with the PTSD of seeing her friend die in front of her, as well as her confusion about the media circus that quickly forms around the incident. There are a lot of activists who want Starr to come forward, and speak openly about Khalil and the night in question. There are just as many, including Starr's concerned mother (Regina King), who want her to be safe and stay quiet, not drawing attention to herself. Naturally, this whole situation makes living in the two worlds she frequents even harder, especially when the students at her school stage a walk out in protest of Khalil's murder, but many of the kids seem to use it as an excuse to blow off school, not really caring about what happened. There are threats of violence against her, and she will question some friendships, but the heart of the story is how Starr learns to handle the situation, and realize what is truly important to her.
The Hate U Give
is never preachy, nor does it sermonize. It's much too smart for that. Instead, it looks at the issues from all angles, and gives every side ample time, and time for the audience to make their own decisions, and what they would do in Starr's position. That is one of the many things that makes the film stand out. We follow Starr as she becomes a young woman who is not afraid to speak out, and the transition of the character feels genuine. There are no forced or contrived moments, no moments where the music swells and Starr feels a change coming within her. Every achievement here is small and personal, and that is the way it should be with a film like this. Starr grows and learns during the course of the film, and starts to become the woman that she will one day grow up to be. And it is Stenberg's amazing performance that carries this through. She must grow from a shy, somewhat awkward teen to a terrified potential victim, and ultimately into a strong young woman, and she is believable in every stage that her character must go through. She is backed up by a strong supporting cast that never once strikes a wrong note, and is just as good as she is in just about every way.
What's also brilliant is how the film makes us feel what Starr is feeling in subtle ways. When she feels awkward and a bit of an outcast at her school, the colors are kind of cold and metallic. When she is with her family or friends, the colors are much warmer, and represent what she is feeling with the people around her. Every emotion this movie puts us through feels earned. Nothing is manipulated, and they are seldom pre-set. If anything feels familiar, it's because it is happening to too many people all around us, and we have probably seen it before. This is not a movie that is trying to blow the lid off of any topic of social issue. It simply wants to show a young girl's reaction to a tragic and all-too-common occurrence. Starr starts the film off as a relative innocent who has her life changed. She holds onto certain people in her life, loses some others, and ultimately becomes a stronger and better person without any forced narrative convenience.
That is what a coming of age story should be, and on that level, The Hate U Give
works beautifully. It's emotional and powerful without feeling like it is being manipulative. Here is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. The fact that it finds so many ways to go right is sort of a small cinematic miracle.