How far young adult literature, and the movies Hollywood adapts from it, has come. Once the realm of stories about young people dealing with daily tragedies and triumphs in recognizable lives, publishers and movie studios have gone through a cycle of Gothic and then dystopian fantasy trends where for every moving Hunger Games, there was a cornucopia of empty melodramas. Yet judging from the success of The Hate U Give, a 2017 bestselling novel by Angie Thomas and now a likely 2018 hit, the stories we tell of young people are finally back to reflecting what it is like to live with other young people—and now from a vantage far too often ignored by mainstream media.
The Hate U Give is one of several films in 2018 to face head-on the issue of police brutality and the agonizing frequency of which unarmed black men are gunned down during traffic stops. However, unlike some of the more indie and high-minded art pieces from both the beginning and end of this year, The Hate U Give attempts to consider this real-life nightmare from the vantage of growing up with it. It’s an authentic approach, even if the movie smooths out the edges with the type of occasionally maudlin gloss one can expect from a studio YA movie.
Focusing on the double life endured by Starr Carter (Amandla Sternberg), The Hate U Give is at its most sophisticated and knowing when tracking the day in the life of a young African American woman who feels compelled to wear two masks, neither of which fits comfortably. The first is in her mostly white and privileged private school in the suburbs, where via voiceover Starr refers to herself as “Starr Version 2,” a young woman who refuses to speak in slang or act in any way that could be misconstrued as “ghetto.” While all the wealthy classmates, some well-meaning and some oblivious to a painful fault, appropriate the culture which thrives in her inner-city neighborhood of Garden Heights, Starr feels isolated in not being able to claim it. The irony is, of course, that on the weekend when she embraces her neighborhood roots, she feels as much an outcast there.
That is perhaps why Starr’s best friend is Khalil (Algee Smith), a childhood chum who knew her before the pretenses and who could’ve been maybe something more. But he’s had a rougher journey than her before the fateful night he drives her home from a party gone bad. Neither of them of course make it to her house. Khalil’s death begins routinely enough; a cop pulls them over for supposedly not signaling at night. Khalil, who wasn’t apparently as trained to fear the police as Starr was by her proud father Maverick (Russell Hornsby), doesn’t realize holding a hairbrush is enough to terrify an officer into shooting him three times in the chest.
Suddenly, Starr’s multiple worlds collide as she becomes the secret witness for a racist cop’s upcoming grand jury process. Local activists urge her to use that position to raise attention to the injustice of Khalil’s death—the local detectives only care about getting Starr to confirm he sold drugs—while the neighborhood drug dealer, King (Anthony Mackie), wants Starr to stay invisible given Khalil’s role in his operation. But in a movie like this, the one thing that’s clear is when a kid is named Starr, it’s only a matter of time before she finds the courage to shine.
The Hate U Give can be incredibly nuanced when dealing with the nigh eternal rigmarole of racial identity in America. Well before the tragedy of police brutality forces Starr to grow up, the movie’s knowing screenplay by Audrey Wells deconstructs the lack of innocence found in always playing to a specific audience. Whether Starr is forced to roll her eyes at her well-meaning and genuinely goodhearted white boyfriend, Chris (Riverdale’s K.J. Appa), claiming he doesn’t see race, or pretending said white boyfriend doesn’t exist at home lest she infuriate her traditionalist father, the text finds all the vital pressure points of a young black experience and squeezes. That hold then becomes a vice-grip when the varying communities react to a police shooting and the inevitable cover-up process in the media and courts.
Starr’s homelife is also one of the stronger elements. While in these sequences, the script and direction can risk veering a little too close to saccharine, it is also remarkably refreshing to see a young black family not treated as either broken or stressed by a Hollywood film despite issues of lower income life and the constant onslaught of racism. In fact, Hornsby and Regina Hall, as Starr’s mother Lisa, threaten to walk away with the movie. In the film’s opening sequence, a nine-year-old version of the protagonist gets the “talk,” which in Starr’s world is how to handle being pulled over by the cops. Hornsby’s under-40 Maverick provides this wisdom with all the authority of the Old Man coming down from the mountain to impart wisdom. When the film complements this with him also teaching his children the tenets of Black Panther principles (and not in reference to the comic book character), the picture even verges on transgressive for an all-audience studio picture.
However, as the film’s third act nears, an already complicated drama about communities and the lives wasted in them becomes weighted down by excessive and melodramatic plotting. And the more the film’s 132 minutes tries to accommodate the many issues on its mind, the top-heavier it becomes. A virtual wall-to-wall voiceover by Stenberg attempts to alleviate the stress of all these threads pulling at Starr’s attention, but in adapting a book that wishes to confront a legion of ills facing black American life—and which 2Pac succinctly summed up as “T(he) H(ate) U G(ive) L(ittle) I(nfants) F(uck) E(verybody)—The Hate U Give bites off more than it can chew as a film. And director Tillman’s direction can perhaps too eagerly underline the broad wish fulfillment of the third act’s most mawkish moments, as opposed to ground them in something as real as Starr and kin’s earlier grief and anger.
Even so, a picture meant to inspire young hearts and minds playing broad is not necessarily a bad thing. Less lyrical than the summer’s Blindspotting, or Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk from later this year, The Hate U Give still has the opportunity to reach a wider audience than either. And like the best of early “young adult fiction,” it forces sheltered viewers to walk around in someone else’s shoes. Someone who’s voice has too often been marginalized in popular media. When coupled with a winning and even star-making turn by Stenberg (who’s no stranger to YA), this film has a lot more to give the world than hate.
The Hate U Give opens in limited release on Oct. 5 and nationwide on Oct. 19.