By Dwight Brown
The phrase “The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody” gave the hip-hop group T-H-U-G-L-I-F-E its name. The sentiment from Tupac Shakur (and other group members, Big Syke, Stretch, Mopreme Shakur, The Rated R and Macadoshis) was that the kids you ignore or deride turn into young people who will be a stone in your shoe. Writer Angie Thomas used that mantra as a title for her bestselling book The Hate U Give, which is inspired by the tragic shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009 in Oakland, California by a transit police officer.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, Hunger Games) has a lot on her shoulders for a 16-year-old African American. She lives in a black working class-neighborhood and is the daughter of Maverick, an ex-convict (Russell Hornsby, Fences) who has turned his life around and owns a local grocery store. Her dad’s past colors his family’s existence every day. He instills in his children basic survival skills for dealing with the police: “Keep your hands where they can see them.” He gives them self-esteem lessons as well: “Know your rights. Know your worth.”
To help his kids get ahead, Maverick and his wife Lisa (Regina Hall) send Starr and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) to a mostly white prep school far from their inner-city home. Living her life in two places is an adjustment. Starr acclimates well. Then one night her worlds are both torn apart and shoved together.
After a late party in the hood, she’s riding in a car with Khalil (Algee Smith), an old childhood friend. A white cop pulls them over and questions them. Starr instinctively puts her hands on the dashboard. Khalil is reluctant. When asked to step outside the vehicle, Khalil seems blasé. There is a deadly incident. Is it a mistake? Standard police procedure? Manslaughter? Khalil’s sudden death changes Starr’s life and destiny. Will she remain silent? Become a witness? Go public?
Audrey Wells’ gripping screenplay lines up the characters, their histories, rivalries and relationships. Each are distinct people dealing with teen angst, social issues, racial pride, family dynamics, civil rights concerns, interracial dating, drug dealing and gang violence. Sometimes the magnitude of the drama on view overwhelms what should or could have been a film based in stark realism.
Add in a subplot about a teen befriended by flaky gal pals and you’re caught between a story with issues that matter and a shallow adolescent tale. Mix in gang violence that is more reminiscent ofWest Side Story than The Bloods vs. The Crips and it takes away from the seriousness of low-income neighborhood crime. The odd juxtapositions may be unsettling for some audiences as they are being pulled into a main storyline that strongly mirrors incidents of police malfeasance and the PTSD that follows. Oh, and the defining incident involving Khalil is way too predictable.
Director George Tillman has his hands full. He takes a very complicated script with disparate storylines and pulls together all those elements as best he can into a comprehensible film that does have powerful moments. The film has a tone, texture and style that can be traced back to his overall guidance: The cinematography (Mihai Malaimare Jr., Nina), production design (William Arnold, The Edge of Seventeen) and music (Dustin O’Halloran, Lion) are perfect. Maybe too perfect for a film that should have had more authentic grit. There are scenes that look like location shots from a music video, and they don’t fit in. That’s when the style is not helpful and more of an impediment.
The wealth of talent on view is almost staggering. Amandla Stenberg carries the weight of the film giving Starr just enough juice to grow from humble vulnerable teen to a courageous protestor. Russell Hornsby displays a grace and strength as the father who tries to protect his children. His character is wise, adaptive, paternal and loving. Regina Hall as the watchful mom never leaves a doubt that she is a mother who would risk everything for her kids. Anthony Mackie plays a local crime lord and is less successful at making heads or tails of his dubious character. Rap artist Common adds a nice touch as an understanding cop. K.J. Apa as Chris, Starr’s white boyfriend, is a pleasant surprise as a loving partner willing to see her through her difficulties.
This is a well-produced movie about a very worthy subject. The dramatic elements range from weak (scenes with Starr at her prep school), to questionable (would a drug lord really threaten Starr for the reasons he states?), to right on target (the portrait of the Carter family and its concerned parents is affecting).
If you want a closeup view of the Black Lives Matter movement, take a look at the very compelling grassroots documentary Whose Streets? That doc will bring you into the heart of a timely and vital civil rights movement. The Hate U Give is well intentioned but not as genuine. Still, it’s well worth a trip to the movie theater.