UK Release Date: 22nd October 2018
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: George Tillman Jr
Writer: Audrey Wells
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Algee Smith, KJ Apa, Issa Rae, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Anthony Mackie
Synopsis: A black girl caught between her roots and the predominantly white school she attends becomes an unwitting political figure when she witnesses a childhood friend being shot dead by police.
It’s a little too easy to proclaim that a movie about racism in today’s America is “timely”, but it’s rare that a film fits that label as strongly as The Hate U Give. Based on the novel of the same name, which was published just last year, it’s a film that not only tackles the horrifying plague of police shooting unarmed black people but explores the very nature of what it means to be a black teenager growing up in that world.
The film begins with a father (Russell Hornsby) sitting his kids down to give them ‘the talk’. In this case, though, the talk is about what to do when they are inevitably pulled over by the police, in order to provide no excuse for white officers to cause trouble. It’s a chilling evocation of what it’s like to grow up in an under-privileged black community. One of the kids in question is Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who is a prime example of how young black people are forced to engage in “code-switching”. In the week, she tones down her “blackness” in order to blend in at her affluent, predominantly white school with her white boyfriend (KJ Apa) while, at the weekend, she seeks to move away from “whiteness” when she meets her friends in the neighbourhood.
Stenberg, who has shone in otherwise ropey YA movies like Everything, Everything and The Darkest Minds, absolutely relishes the chance to get her teeth into a role that matches her impressive talent. The two sides of Starr’s life collide in horrifying fashion when her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) is shot dead by a white policeman after reaching for a hairbrush. Suddenly, she’s facing a push and pull between a desire to speak up for her friend, the prospect of becoming a figurehead for an activist movement led by April (Issa Rae) and the threats of a local drug dealer (Anthony Mackie), for whom Khalil occasionally worked.
It’s a nightmare scenario for Starr, and George Tillman Jr‘s film clings tightly to her as she navigates the complex racial landscape. Stenberg does a terrific job as the reluctant activist who initially states that “I just gotta be quiet”, before gradually realising how important her voice could be. This comes through clearly in the reaction of her white school colleagues who publicly stage woke walkouts in support of Black Lives Matter, but privately have a great deal of support for the cop who pulled the trigger on Khalil. These walkouts are portrayed like a grotesque clown show of privilege, especially through Sabrina Carpenter as Starr’s distinctly Mean Girls friend, giving The Hate U Give some of its most subtly potent moments.
The film is incendiary in its political anger and, through Stenberg, even the most privileged audience member is forced to feel the injustices foisted upon people of colour. These are the story’s strongest moments but, when it’s not doing that stuff, it suffers from being stuffed with a few too many unnecessary subplots – Mackie’s snarling kingpin adds very little to proceedings – and subsequently feeling somewhat bloated at well over two hours in length. On the flipside, though, this extended runtime leaves plenty of room to allow the audience to become fully immersed in the milieu of Starr’s complicated existence.
As a showcase for Stenberg and a teen movie that credits its audience with astute political awareness, The Hate U Give is a refreshing antidote to the often fairly conventional world of filmmaking for young people. There’s a slightly raggedy feel to some of it as it lurches between subplots, but it so obviously comes from a position of personal experience and genuine anger that it’s impossible not to be pulled into its well-realised and plausible world. When Stenberg finally grasps a megaphone and speaks her mind, you want to punch the air and join her.
Pop or Poop?
With all of the political resonance in the world at its back, The Hate U Give is a fierce, essential teen movie that has plenty to say about the state of American society today. Amandla Stenberg shines as the protagonist through whom the action orbits, albeit from a few too many separate directions at times, and makes the most of a meaty, dramatic role that enables her to break free of her YA roots.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.