Your reality is not the same as everyone else’s. Circumstances outside of your control shape and affect your life and how you see the world. As a brown kid growing up in Chicago’s south side, I was shaped by my surroundings and the Catholic school I attended as much as I was by anything at home. The two would often clash or completely oppose each other, but they ultimately would end up as part of my identity. The Hate U Give contextualizes and modernizes this same identity clash, but to a much more scathing and unapologetic end.
The film starts off with giving you an introduction to the three lives of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg). At home, she has the freedom to fully be herself. At school and in her neighborhood, she feels socially forced to conform to her respective surrounding, never feeling fully comfortable in either extreme. We’ve seen this before in many films about adolescence, usually paired with stereotypical teen angst and the “no one understands me” sentiment. Screenplay writer Audrey Wells does a fantastic job adapting Angie Thomas’ novel of the same name. Wells takes the most relatable parts of these coming-of-age films and weaves them into a tale that has become too painfully common in the United States.
The outcome is an effective storytelling style that lets you effortlessly find commonality with it in the beginning, only to completely shake you into discomfort (and hopefully empathy). We can all find something to relate to in the daily high school life of Starr, but as the film takes a closer examination into race and privilege, the results are meant to be shocking. Trump’s pro-white nationalist (AKA the KKK) actions and generalizations of Hispanics as “bad hombres” continues the countries pro-white sentiment. Wells uses the source material to perfectly capture the guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality many have towards people of color. Starr having to go out of her way to embody a non-threatening representation of blackness that her white peers can feel comfortable around is a powerful message about how our dysfunctional society functions.
The two separate worlds that Starr takes part in are her school life and her neighborhood life. Director George Tillman Jr. makes clear visual distinctions between the two by giving her time spent at school and with those friends a cool,clinical hue, while the film gives a much warmer, summer-esque atmospheric glow for time spent in her neighborhood and with those friends. The effect comes off as a bit hokey at the beginning because the intention feels very basic. It isn’t until much later in the film, when the distinctions between the two disappear as Starr realizes she can no longer keep compartmentalizing herself for the benefit of others. Tillman, like Starr, finds the balance in reality, without any filters.
Tillman has created powerful films that are both family-focused (Soul Food) and about strong, black figures (Notorious), giving The Hate U Give the adaptive tone and pacing necessary to tell such a complex, timely story. The poet and lyricist Tupac Shakur is a heavy influence and presence in the film, giving the film its title from his break down of what the true meaning of what T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. means to the black community. This not only helps create a soundtrack for the film but is also meant to show how wisdom from over 20 years ago is still mostly unheeded as little has changed between then and now.
Aside from a powerhouse performance from Amanda Stenberg, and phenomenal ensemble cast consisting of Regina Hall, Common, Issa Rae, Russell Hornsby, and Anthony Mackie, the reason The Hate U Give is so poignant comes from its narrative balance. At no point does the film feel one-sided, or like it is being willfully ignorant to any points of views. In fact, the film goes out of its way to address issues like Blue Lives Matter and even how someone who isn’t a person of color can be a true ally to those who are. Part of it does come off as a way not to alienate potential white viewers by making it more palatable, but filmmakers like Tillman and even Spike Lee (Blackkklansman) understand that this perspective is the most effective. Putting out equalizing chants like “All power to all the people”, and even showing that not every law enforcement officer is inherently racist, while still providing scathing commentary that the broken system is still majorly prejudiced. The film’s relevance is beyond obvious, and its release is much timelier than I’m sure even it expected it to be.
It is impossible to put films like The Hate U Give and Blindspotting into purely fictional categories. As I write this, the trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald has just concluded, finding Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty. Beyond any technical critique, films like this are socially necessary to not only educate but to create the much-needed outrage against these injustices. An outrage that should already exist from EVERY community, but for some reason doesn’t. The measure of a film not only depends on how well it is made and can deliver its message but also for what it has to say.
Films like The Hate U Give aren’t for the communities that they directly affect because they know exactly what they go through. Films like this serve a greater/necessary educational purpose for those who don’t see the pattern in why injustices like the murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, etc., are a problem. Film has always been a powerful medium. It’s so strong that when one of the first silent film epics, The Birth of a Nation, was released, it led to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s only fitting that film be the vehicle to tear down such sentiments, and films like The Hate U Give are a necessary step in getting more outcomes like the Van Dyke trial.