“The Hate U Give” may be a YA adaptation but its story is bigger and weightier than most aimed at teens. This is a brilliantly nuanced film that should appeal to adults as well as younger audiences with its rich characters and complex emotions. It also makes a number of bold statements concerning race, sex, and power in a year when such issues couldn’t be more in the forefront. And even though it wears its politics on its sleeve, the film never feels preachy or obvious. It’s one of the true sleepers of the year and one of its very best as well.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is the main character in the piece and she’s a star allright. (So is Stenberg, but more on her later.) She’s a smart kid, fun and popular at her mostly white private high school, and beloved far and wide in her mostly working-class black community. She navigates both worlds with relative ease. Her parents Maverick (Russell Hornsby), a store owner, and mom Lisa (Regina Hall), a nurse, have raised her to be kind, conscientious, and disciplined. She’s close to them, as well as her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and little brother Sekani (TJ Wright). Starr also has a white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) and two BFF’s at school (Megan Lawless and Sabrina Carpenter) who adore her too.
Her ability to disconnect the two worlds is shattered when she reconnects with childhood friend Khalil Harris (Algee Smith) at a party. They rekindle their friendship, and he even steals a kiss, but then their world is destroyed when the car they’re in gets pulled over for a minor traffic violation. The tensions rise, and driver Khalil ends up getting fatally shot by a trigger-happy white police officer. Now, Starr must grieve the loss of her friend and figure out what to do with what she’s witnessed. Her two worlds can no longer live equal but separate.
Her mom frets over her safety, especially since Khalil had a history of dealing drugs under the tutelage of brooding gang leader King (Anthony Mackie). King just happens to be Maverick’s former partner-in-crime, but he changed his stripes after a stint in jail when he took the fall for the kingpin’s crimes. Maverick still feels the sting of being in the crosshairs of the cops all those years and implores her to use her position as a standout resident in both worlds to shine a light on what happened to Khalil. It will also bring attention to the larger issue plaguing the nation where too many unarmed black men are killed by callous cops. Starr is all too aware of how this will alter her standing in both communities, depending on how honest she is with authorities as well as herself.
Angie Thomas wrote the source material novel with great sensitivity, never opting for easy answers or pat character arcs. Audrey Wells, in her screenplay adaptation, and George Tillman Jr., in his direction, have done Thomas proud as their film never falters in keeping all the detail and nuance in Thomas’ storytelling. In fact, the film often feels like a great read as it takes time in playing out scenes and gives the characters enough time to think and react to what’s going on, rather than always being in perpetual motion to drive the story forward. It’s a long film at 2 hours and 13-minutes, but it never feels lengthy.
Character is always story, and all the characters shine here that you enjoy every minute with them. It’s a large cast and they’re all given so much to do in this expansive telling. Yet, throughout, no character ever turns into a clichéd or an obvious metaphor. Instead, they seem utterly real, sometimes painfully so. It helps that the casting is so sublime here, with excellent performances across the board. Hornsby and Hall are particularly brilliant in their key supporting roles. The teens all come off as genuine characters, never types, and even the nerdy character of Chris is given multiple layers and Apa aces all of them.
Most impressive is Stenberg in the lead. She gives one of the year’s strongest and most complex performances, conveying every conflicting emotion, each up and down of Starr’s emotions. Her work here can compare to actresses with 30 years more experience on camera. She is an intuitive empath, a talent who knows how to make pain palpable and joy contagious. Stenberg not only uses her large eyes but also her extraordinary body language to convey so much in every moment Starr is onscreen. Hopefully, The Hate U Give will be a highlight, but not the zenith, of a brilliant career for her.
Occasionally, the film relies on the trope of narration, which underlines its book origins. Still, the script is very cinematic, showcasing characters voices and actions to convey volumes of meaning. The film’s politics are clear and strong, and it was a sharp move of Tillman to cast Issa Rae as April Ofrah, the outside activist brought in to try to convince Starr to go public. What could have been a one-note symbol becomes a flesh and blood person whose likability makes you believe her heavy-lifting message all the more.
The YA moments are all here – the prom, the girl fights, introducing the boyfriend to the family – but they’re not given too much screen time. This film has bigger fish to fry. And the movie never shirks from the implications of predatory violence in cities, showing Khalil’s death in all the heartbreaking and unflinching detail necessary to make us feel it just like Starr.
Some may find the police to be given short-shrift here, particularly the white officers, but Common plays a sensitive cop who more than gives the blue line in his strong scene where he explains what cops deal with day in and day out. Still, this film isn’t trying for an even-handed argument. It, like the book, indicts the white hierarchy and implores all of us to open our eyes to the discrimination playing out across the land, from the cities to our political discourse.
Ultimately, The Hate U Give is an incredibly powerful character study, a crackling thriller, and even a shrewd editorial on the impact of violence in America. Starr’s family is America’s family and they, and the nation, deserve far, far better.
View the trailer for The Hate U Give below: