We’ve all had to have “the talk” with our parents once we hit a certain age. For most of us it’s a trope, a right of passage, a coming of age moment all parents must go through with their children and all children must endure by their parents. But it’s ironic that too often we find talking about sex far more uncomfortable than anything involving violence. Which makes sense if you think about how the heroes of our grand superhero movies can decimate an entire species of alien life, but god forbid we ever see them boogying down under the covers with their boo. Violence is just another aspect of our everyday lives in one way or another, while we pretend to have moral civility elsewhere.
But a majority of parents in the United States don’t have to have the type of talk that Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby) has to have with his children at the start of The Hate U Give. For a moment just try to imagine how enraging it must feel, as a parent, to try and explain simply to a child why people who are supposed to protect us treat people of color differently than others. Recent tragedies have begun educating the country as a whole, but it’s a safe assumption that far too many white audiences didn’t know this happened. This talk. This experience. It’s just one aspect of why George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, adapted by Audrey Wells from the book by Angie Thomas, is so important. Since the inception of this country these stories have been told, and finally in 2018 they are being given the platform to finally be heard. And we must listen.
Our narrator is Starr (Amandla Stenberg), whose life is spent divided between two places: Williamson Prep, the affluent white private high school her parents send her to, and Garden Heights, her home and where her own family grew up. Her father went to prison, his father went to prison, but while the King Lords gang controls the neighborhood, this film isn’t about the crime of the mostly poor, black neighborhood that is Starr’s life. Like a small amount of marijuana used to smear a victim of a police shooting, where Starr comes from is just used to misdirect what this film is really about.
This film really is about Khalil (Algee Smith), Starr’s best friend from childhood, who is tragically gunned down by a white police officer while grabbing a brush from his car. It doesn’t matter that Khalil, which we are told in Arabic means friend, dealt drugs for the King Lords. It doesn’t matter if he was drinking at a house party or was around after a gun went off. What matters is that, in this moment, he was shot by a scared man with a badge and a gun. All for having a brush in his hand. For all the declarations you hear about innocent until proven guilty, the film questions why people of color so often seem guilty until proven innocent?
But, “It’s complicated,” says Starr’s Uncle Carlos (Common, who is uncommonly without his signature goatee) as she prepares herself to give a witness testimony to a Grand Jury in hopes of taking the offending officer to trial. He’s a police officer too, giving the film another duality of awareness. He has to reckon with the question Starr poses him: if a white man in a business suit leaned into his car, just like Khalil did, would he have fired without hesitation? Just like they are purported to be trained to do? The question stops him in his tracks. And it is the question at the heart of the film: if it is not hate, then what is it within ourselves that places this fear onto the bodies of people of color? And if we can’t truthfully answer that question for ourselves, then we must ask why because, as Starr answers for Uncle Carlos, “It doesn’t seem that complicated to me.”
While The Hate U Give is an emotionally raw and honest film about the intersection of police and people of color in this nation, it isn’t merely a heartbreaking reminder of reality. Starr’s youngest brother is named Sekani, meaning joy. If this films pendulum continually lands on frustration and sorrow, it also always finds time for joy. This is the counterpoint the filmmakers needed to balance how genuinely heavy the film feels. They do this by reminding us that Starr is still just a teen. We see her radiant smile as she cracks up with her best friends or her boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa, who’s basically still just playing Archie). We even get the hilariously awkward first meeting of the dad and the boyfriend, a timeless trope from teen comedy past, ratcheted up a step as Maverick had no idea Chris was white. It’s awkward, hilarious, but like everything in this film has a point.
Clearly affected by seeing his daughter with a white boyfriend, Maverick lurches back in his chair, “I guess I never gave you a good role model for a black man.” he says. Starr leans forward, “No. You gave me a good role model for a man.” Maverick named his three children specifically: Seven for Perfection, Sekani for Joy, and Starr for Light because she was Maverick’s light in the darkness. And here she is again, living up to her name.
If the film has one hiccup it’s only that its message can sometimes feel like a Buzzfeed video, coming in speeches or dialogue that show no attempt at masking the underlying message. It can be a little too clearly educational, focused on hitting buzzwords and talking points from the spectrum of perspectives on this issue. But frankly, until people can get into their heads not only that police shootings are wrong, but that it’s even happening at all, then we have to tell people that in the most literal ways possible. And now we have it in a powerfully entertaining film, hopefully destined to be shown in high school classrooms all across the United States.
The title The Hate U Give is derived from a Tupac Shakur interview and, if you hadn’t already guessed, an acronym for THUG. But in Tupac’s original words, the full acronym was for THUG LIFE: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody, which is repeated throughout the film. As he said in the original interview “What you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face.” And if the seeds that are being sewn within Generation-Z and the following generations are that we live in a society that stands up, like Starr, and becomes the voice for the voiceless, then maybe in the future we’ll have fewer needs for films like this. But until we do, films like The Hate U Give are important. These stories haven’t been given the platform like this to be told. And they desperately need to continue to be told. It very well could save lives.