The Hate U Give: Surprisingly Pointed Hollywood Film Straddles Black Lives Matter Debate

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B

A paradoxically angry crowd-pleaser drawn in broad emotional strokes, The Hate U Give is an exemplary post-Black Lives Matter story of political consciousness-raising. Based on the 2017 best-selling young-adult novel by Angie Thomas, the movie follows a teenaged African-American girl named Starr (Amandla Stenberg) who lives a double life between her mostly white private school and poor crime-ridden neighbourhood.

 Amandla Stenberg: character living in two worlds.

Amandla Stenberg: character living in two worlds.

She is forced to choose sides when she becomes the sole witness to the police shooting of a young black male friend, Khalil, and becomes a central figure in a protest against police violence. This is an inspirational movie about a grim subject, and full of all kinds of cognitive dissonance, including in the heroine’s head. Starr lives in the fictional Los Angeles neighbourhood of Garden Heights, where you go to the local high school “to get drunk, high, pregnant or killed.” Her parents, an ex-con grocer (Russell Hornby) and nurse (Regina Hall) scrimp to send her to private school instead. There, she thinks of herself as Starr Version 2, who modifies her language and style to better fit in.

Things come to a head when Starr is urged by a local activist (Insecure’s Issa Rae) to testify before a grand jury into indicting the killer policeman. She fears being socially ostracized from her white friends and also possible violent retaliation from the local drug kingpin (Anthony Mackie).

In one sense, Hate is strikingly radical. One doesn’t expect to see a well-promoted major studio movie (Twentieth Century Fox) where the police are portrayed, essentially, as an occupying army. Or to hear the Black Panther’s 10-point agenda to be read aloud on screen. Yet the film also has a Hollywood gloss and programmatic structure that often makes it feel as predictable as an expensive after-school special. There is a lot of awkward explaining in the movie or, more precisely, “blaxplaining” to use a term used by Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham in a recent Still Processing podcast for The New York Times on contemporary wave of political black movies.

At times, screenwriter Audrey Wells’ scenes can feel as if they follow a Buzzfeed list of “Things White People Need to Learn Right Now.” Using black slang makes her white friends feel cool, Starr notes in voice-over while she herself avoids sounding too “hood.”

There’s the “I don’t see colour” chestnut that Starr’s white, clueless preppie boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa of Riverdale) says, to which Starr retorts, on cue: “If you don’t’ see my blackness, you don’t see me.”

When Chris drives Starr home from the prom to meet her dad, her half-brother (Lamar Johnson) offers him a crash course on African-American culture. Mac n’ Cheese — main course or side dish? (Side).

Was the young man who was murdered a criminal? Technically he was a drug dealer, though as the movie takes care to explain, he sold “that stuff” because there were no other employment opportunities to pay for drugs for his grandmother’s cancer treatment.

When Starr’s hip-hop identifying but platinum blonde and privileged schoolmate Hailey displays her “white fragility” by saying the newly radicalized Starr has “changed” and when she declares that “police lives matter too,” Starr really loses it.

As if to inoculate itself against charges of anti-police bias, the story provides Starr with a responsible, kindly cop, her uncle Carlos (rapper Common, very good). He makes the case that the police have to make split-second decisions in dangerous circumstances while conceding his own bias in favour of white suspects.

Schematic though it is, it’s certainly possible to enjoy many aspects of The Hate U Give. The subject is emotionally intense and Stenberg — as the petite but forceful heroine — is inspiring, particularly when she grabs a megaphone at a protest, with her voice rising to racking rage. As Starr’s mom, the empathetic Hall is decency-incarnate, and as her flawed but idealistic dad, Maverick, Hornby, is a rich, idiosyncratic character.

The pleasures aren’t consistent though. Other characters (Rae, Mackie) are two-dimensional figures in service of a plot that straggles along for 132 minutes through a melodramatic climax and sugary ending that’s more exasperating than a pleasure.

Only by stepping back is it possible to see how peculiar and relatively original the movie is: A politically radical black youth drama for mainstream consumption; dissonant entertainment for fractious times.

The Hate U Give. Directed by George Tillman, Jr. Starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, J.K. Apa, Anthony Mackie, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Issa Rae and Lamar Johnson. Opens wide October 19.