“It is impossible to be unarmed when our blackness is the weapon they fear.”
My head turned to see a middle-aged black woman some rows back with a young man, both of them sobbing. And for 2+ hours the three of us seemed to laugh and weep and deeply think in unison. Do you have any idea how rare such a connection is? That’s the kind of chemistry strained couples go to therapy for. The Hate U Give is such a poignant, impactful, beautiful film that complete strangers were able to ride in harmony on the same emotional journey. I’m a straight, white, altogether too privileged male, and I’m aware that my reading of this movie doesn’t do it complete justice, but I also believe that to be part of the picture’s profound belief in connectivity; for me it was an opportunity to empathize and for too many others it’s a shattering dramatization of their lived experiences. The Hate U Give won’t go down as the best film of 2018, although it very well might be the most important. Please take the time to see it.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is born and raised in Garden Heights, and it is absolutely crucial that this fictitious town is never given a definite location; what’s soon to unfold is not bound by any precise geography because its drama crosses state lines. Garden Heights is such a sham of a name, too. This place, full of pride and crime in equal spades, gives people the space to take root in the community whilst limiting their glass ceiling. That’s why Starr and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) make the commute to the private school Williamson Prep everyday. They aren’t enrolled there to learn how to pray, says their mother Lisa (Regina Hall). They are there to study, to be safe, and prepare an exit route from the Heights. Even their father Maverick (Russell Horsnby), a former drug dealer who did his time and escaped the trials of the trap, while still refusing to uproot his convenience store or abandon the only home he’s ever known, wants more for his children. The entire film is about conflict, both internal and external.
We witness Starr’s confused inner turmoil as she code-switches between drastically different environments. In the Heights she’s noticeably more comfortable without looking too relaxed, lightly speaking in the heavy slang of her peers. At school she’s surrounded by affluent white kids who appropriate the very culture she’s been born and raised in, all while maintaining a proper and softer speech pattern. As she says in the film, there are two different versions of Starr. At Williamson Prep she has a boyfriend named Chris (K.J. Apa) who doesn’t entirely know her because he can’t cut beneath the thick skin she’s built. Back home, Starr runs into Khalil Harris (Algee Smith) at a house party. Khalil was her childhood best friend, first kiss, and he shows obvious affections for her still. A gunfight erupts, they drive off, reminiscing and flirting. He even goes in for a kiss. Then in a matter of minutes, Starr finds herself handcuffed, watching Khalil bleed out after being shot by an officer following an all too routine traffic stop. This scene shook me to my core. It feels real because it is real.
From that point forward Starr’s path is plagued by anonymity. If she speaks out, she runs the risk of suffering the wrath of King (Anthony Mackie), the local drug lord who formerly “employed” Khalil. If she remains silent and refuses to testify before a grand jury, there’s an even greater chance the guilty officer will walk scot-free. Through the eyes of Amandla Stenberg – a supernova of an actress who’s finely found a great role, and who delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen so this year – we’re able to feel the agony and the gnawing pressure piled upon her shoulders. She’s a smart young woman who’s memorized the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Self Defense Program because her Father demanded it. And as the Dad, Russell Hornsby absolutely deserves Best Supporting Actor consideration. He’s a fierce, gentle, steady minister of harsh truths who prepares his children for an unfair, harsh reality. To raise their hands and be compliant and calm if danger comes their way. Some kids get a talk about the birds and the bees; the Carter children are told how to survive systemic injustice and brutality. What a difference a short drive can make.
Adapted from Angie Thomas’ novel by screenwriter Audrey Wells, there isn’t anything groundbreaking about George Tillman Jr.’s directorial approach; he tells the story precisely and fluidly, wasting few moments because each scene is so precious. And through the cinematography of Mihai Mălaimare Jr., the film creates a dichotomy which visualizes Starr’s inner imprisonment. In Garden Heights the picture is full of heat, so much so that it could be hell. In Williamson the frame’s lost to aseptic, chilly blues and grays, almost to the point that it could be a hospital hallway. The film will surprise you through its racial politics, its depiction of unfair prejudice, the empowerment of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its dedication to social justice. The Hate U Give moved me to tears as I pictured my late Uncle – a great man by all accounts – who I never had the pleasure of meeting. He was gunned down, murdered and left for dead, and I carry his first name as my middle. Our family was able to get justice and some semblance of peace, although such a wound never really heals. The Hate U Give forces those like myself to feel as if all hope is lost, and it’s a picture which commiserates with those who’ve experienced this grave level of disenfranchisement first hand. This film hurts as much as – if not more than – 2013’s Fruitvale Station did, and yet it ends with the glimmer of hope we all so desperately need in these divisive times. It should be seen by every American.
“How many of us have to die before ya’ll get it?”
Rating: 5 out of 5