REVIEW – ‘The Hate U Give’ is a powerful film that demands to be heard

Anyone in need of an antidote of reality after the fluffy fantasy of Green Book need look no further than director George Tillman, Jr.‘s compelling and powerful drama The Hate U Give that demands to be heard. Perfectly capturing the current dire state of race relations in the U.S. and the neverending wave of deaths of innocent young black men at the hands of trigger-happy policemen, a wave of furious anger rightly burns throughout this film, and it’s highly likely you’ll leave with that fire pulsing through your own veins.

With one fist raised in the air, The Hate U Give will serve as a compelling wake-up call to those blindly refusing to acknowledge the stark reality faced by the next generation of African American teenagers who now fear the flash of blue and red lights behind their car as much as someone shooting up their schoolyard. While this narrative will naturally be painfully familiar to some, it could prove to be the dose of stark truth many desperately need to hear, and therein lies its immense power.

Based on the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas and adapted for the screen by the late Audrey Wells, The Hate U Give begins with a flashback prologue featuring ex-con and proud Black Panther turned doting father Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby) and his wife Lisa (Regina Hall) sternly teaching his ten-year-old son, Seven (Hassan Welch) and their nine-year-old daughter, Starr (Kai Turé) how to react if a police officer ever pulls over a car they’re travelling in. Put your hands on the dashboard with all fingers spread. Do exactly as you’re told. Answer any questions directly but politely. And, whatever you do, never make any sudden movements. Welcome to life in 21st century America.

Flashing forward to present day, Starr (a sublime Amandla Stenberg) is now a promising 16-year-old who’s essentially living a double life. Raised in the impoverished “ghetto” neighbourhood of Garden Heights, Starr and Seven (Lamar Johnson) leave that world behind each day, as they head to a posh private school, Williamson Prep. It’s here that “Starr Version 2” takes over. Suppressing her “blackness,” Starr perfectly blends in amongst the affluent white kids who would never guess she’s really from the hood. She laughs at their cringey usage of black slang. She hangs with two Instagram-obsessed white girls. She’s even found herself a goofy but endearing white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa). But she knows she doesn’t belong here, and never quite feels at home.

On the weekends, Starr can be herself, even if she feels just as out-of-place at a neighbourhood party filled with black teens as she does at Williamson Prep. Avoiding the drinking and fighting taking place around her, Starr happens to bump into Khalil (Algee Smith), an old childhood friend and her very first crush. As kids, they dressed as Harry Potter characters and made big dreams for the future. But times have changed, and Khalil now finds himself dealing drugs for a local crime boss, King (a rather miscast Anthony Mackie) to help support his cancer-affected grandmother. After a fight breaks up the party, the two escape the chaos in Khalil’s car before being stopped by a police officer for a minor traffic infringement.

Starr knows what to do. Hands on the dash. Follow all instructions. Don’t make a fuss. Knowing the potential consequences, she begs Khalil to also follow her father’s advice. Failing to take his friend’s pleading seriously, Khalil innocently reaches into the car for his hairbrush, which the jittery cop mistakes for a gun. Shots are fired, and a young man’s life is cruelly taken. The killing naturally causes a wave of media interest and community outrage at the death of yet another innocent black teenager.

For Starr, it causes her two worlds to collide, with the opportunistic white kids using the incident as a reason to ditch class and “protest” under the guise of #blacklivesmatter. Steadfast to remain Starr Version 2, she tries to shrug it off and keep her connection to the crime a secret. Soon enough, activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae) shows up on her doorstep, urging Starr to testify before a grand jury, given she’s the only witness to the shooting. This also places her in the crossfire of King, who threatens retaliation against Starr and her family if she reveals Khalil’s connection to the crime lord. If she testifies, the consequences could be dire and her schoolyard cover will be blown. But if she stays silent, is she equally complicit in allowing Khalil’s death to go unpunished?

Refusing to shy away from the bleak reality of the African American experience in America, Tillman, Jr. paints his portrait of inequality, injustice, and prejudice with the intimacy and authenticity that can only come from a black filmmaker. Too often films concerned with racial issues play it safe and offer simplistic solutions that have no basis in the real world. They fail to grasp the systemic origins of racism that have existed for literally generations of people of colour. In The Hate U Give, there’s little solace to be found. This is a film that demands you pay attention to the inescapable fact that life in America is rotten for those born with black skin. And this unjust system is just the way it’s always been.

But in Starr, Wells provides hope for the future with the powerful voice of a new generation who refuse to accept things must stay the way they are. Much like we’ve seen with the inspiring response from the teenage survivors of Stoneman Douglas High School, who led a country-wide protest against gun violence after their school was the location of yet another mass shooting, the next generation will not be told to sit down and shut up. The dilemmas Starr is facing are resonant with those challenged by the reality of life in America for minorities, making The Hate U Give one of the most important works of the year.

With the potent combination of both a black director and writer, there’s an authenticity to The Hate U Give that can only come from the authority of personal experience, and it’s clear all involved with this film feel personally connected to its themes and events. It’s a connection white people will simply never understand, no matter how hard they try. Chris clearly cares for the struggles afflicting his cherished girlfriend and proudly states how he “doesn’t see colour.” But Starr’s colour is inescapable, a fact she’s desperately attempted to avoid for years. It’s only when Starr begins to own her heritage and be proud of her culture does she find the strength to stand up and fight back.

Stenberg is a revelation as our tortured but determined heroine, marking the arrival of a wildly talented young actress you really need to keep an eye on. With an incredibly nuanced and, at times, heartbreaking performance, Stenberg perfectly captures the rollercoaster of emotions Starr is experiencing. The once cheery teenager gives way to a tortured victim, leaving Starr lost and disillusioned with a world she no longer understands. But when she finds her strength, a leader arrives with a force that will blow your damn socks off. Stenberg handles everything thrown at her with the kind of aplomb normally associated with seasoned veterans in a performance that’s as captivating as it is inspiring.

Surrounding Stenberg is a terrific ensemble cast. Rae is impressive in a small but important role that voices the frustrations many find with a legal system consistently stacked against people of colour who dare demand justice. As Starr’s uncle Carlos, a policeman himself, Common provides an alternate view of the difficult situations officers find themselves in, gifting the film with a juxtaposed view against the misguided notion that all cops are inherently savage monsters. Mackie tries his hardest to play the true menacing villain of the piece, but it’s not a role that fits particularly well with such an endearing actor.

But the real scene-stealers are Hall and Hornsby as Starr’s loving parents, who differ on the best course of action to deal with the difficult situation their daughter has found herself in. Lisa wants to protect her daughter at all costs, even suggesting the family finally up and leave Garden Heights for good. But Maverick wants his daughter to inherit the spirit of the Black Panther movement he was once a part of, and he’ll ultimately provide the catalyst for her mighty transformation. Hall and Hornsby have sensational chemistry together, which creates an earnest and intimate portrait of adoring parents who only ever have their daughter’s best interests at heart.

It’s not all perfect, particularly the film’s climax, which is a little too saccharinely sweet for its own good. But it’s a minor quibble in a piece that stands as one of the most emotional films of the year. The majority of my predominantly-white audience were in tears by the end of the screening, which proves how affecting this narrative proves to be for audiences of all colours. Its major victory is the fact it never feels too sanctimonious or judgemental, even though it had every right to be as such.

The Hate U Give may open a few eyes to the black experience in 21st century America. It will rightly startle those who’ve turned a blind eye and convinced themselves the Jim Crow days are nothing but a thing of the past. And, for black audiences, it will portray their lives in a way that feels painfully familiar but ultimately inspiring and hopeful. It’s deeply honest and intensely relevant. It’s both infuriating and encouraging. And it brings an issue to the forefront we simply can no longer afford to ignore.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Algee Smith, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, K.J. Apa, Common, Anthony Mackie
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Robert Teitel, George Tillman, Jr.
Screenplay: Audrey Wells
Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Production Design: William Arnold
Music: Dustin O’Halloran
Editors: Craig Hayes, Alex Blatt
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Date: 31st January 2019 (Australia)