As much as I have been looking forward to moving on from talking about horror (a luxury which Overlord didn’t provide), I can’t say that this is what I was eager to move on to. A two+ hour YA discussion of race? The Hate U Give, an adaptation of a novel by Angie Thomas from last year, is the kind of film that at its best is one I feel I have to see less than I want to (it’s Oscar season alright), and I dread getting into the thornier issues of how well it handles the subject matter especially speaking as someone who can’t exactly speak from firsthand experience. There’s also a certain amount of burnout to be had with watching so many films discussing these same issues (between narrative and documentary titles) and I can’t say that one intended for young adults seemed to promise to add much more to the conversation (at least for me) than all the other films had been doing.
Thankfully, however, The Hate U Give, mostly focuses on the more personal elements of its story and it succeeds most thoroughly when it does. The title is a Tupac reference, one that the film discusses in perhaps too on the nose detail repeatedly. Our lead is Starr Carter (played by The Hunger Games‘ Amandla Stenberg), a 16-year-old black girl living in the poor Garden Heights neighborhood of *City Not Given*. Her dad (played by Russell Hornsby of Grimm) was a drug dealer and the right hand man for the King Lords gang who after doing a three year bid for the leader, cleaned his life up and started to run his own grocery store. His mom (Regina Hall) had gotten pregnant with her at the age of 17, but they’ve stuck together all these years.
While the three kids (including Starr, her older half-brother, and younger brother) started at the local public school, they moved to Williamson private school when Starr was 10 when a friend of Starr’s was murdered. Now Starr lives two lives, her life at Williamson where she has a white boyfriend and has to consciously avoid doing anything that may make her look or sound “ghetto” and her hidden away life in her neighborhood where she spends her weekends even if she seems no more comfortable there anymore. At a party where she meets her old friend Khalil, shots ring out and when the shit goes down, they flee together in his car. Later on, they are pulled over by a cop and Starr, who we see in the opening scene getting “the talk” father from the age of 9, compiles but Khalil is less cooperative to getting pulled over for a DWB. He’s forced to step out of the car and while waiting for the cop to process the paperwork, he checks in on Starr, grabs his brush and brings in to his head. The white cop interprets this as him pulling a gun and as is too often the case guns him down right in front of Starr.
Unlike Blindspotting, where the witness was an ex-con who only witness part of the event and whose credibility was therefore going to be in doubt if he came forward, Starr is a minor and a good kid and it instead Khalil who is the subject of suspicion. Starr gets treated like a criminal by the cops (despite having an uncle who is one played by Common) who only care about Khalil’s status as a drug dealer instead of asking about the incident and it’s a pattern that is repeated throughout the movie. Also, unlike Blindspotting, the shooting here dominates the rest of the film instead of just becoming a part of it and its definition of how people see each other. Starr is haunted by the images she is seen as well as torn over whether to testify since it will obviously expose her carefully constructed wall between her two lives, make her a target of the local gang who wants her to keep quiet, as well as make her the obvious target of every cop and other racist ass white person.
The performances are strong across the board (with the exception of Issa Rae who fits in awkwardly), most obviously Stenberg’s who’s asked to carry so much of the film’s emotional weight. Hornsby (both in his character as written and in his acting) is another highlight, a man whose also torn between the two lives (the one which he gave up and the new happy family, business owning one), but instead of resorting to the typical drawing him back to a life of crime, they pull much a similar trick to what Blindspotting did where he wants to hold on to how he was raised and his identity and yet it also for him means holding on to some dangerous ways of thinking which threaten to escalate into something far worse.
It’s a depressing as hell movie whose length doesn’t necessarily work against it (do even YA movies have to be over two hours now?) but it does make it intentionally unpleasant to sit through at times as it starts to weigh on you. The actual social commentary can get very heavy handed at times (which is not helped at all by the narration), but I’ll allow it to an extent considering the target audience (just like I’m more lenient when Doctor Who does this same thing since its heavy handed nature is part and parcel for the show. It’s better when it focuses on Starr, her struggles, and her family, but the film managed to exceed my expectations in tackling the various issues head on.