Atlas had it easy. He only had one world to carry.
In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) has to balance two. She lives in a black neighborhood, but says almost nothing about it at the white, private school she attends in the suburbs. She has a white boyfriend named Chris (K.J. Apa), she’s constantly watching her own words and actions, afraid that she might alienate her classmates with a bit of unfamiliar slang or a gesture that might give away her roots.
Back home, Starr has to make sure none of the teens she grew up with think she’s put on airs. She has to cope with her old friends’ hair trigger tempers. She can see life outside of the ’hood, so what’s the point of getting killed over a petty feud?
Her juggling act collapses when her childhood pal Khalil (Algee Smith) drives her home from a party that has gotten too wild. Before he can get her to her parents’ door, a nervous white cop pulls them over. The officer is clearly too jumpy and Kahlil hasn’t received the talk Starr’s father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) gave her about dealing with cops. Because Kahlil hasn’t done anything wrong, he only winds up aggravating the officer whenever he responds to questions.
And the officer winds up killing Khalil when he mistakes his hairbrush for a weapon.
Starr’s life is even more complicated. Though the cop clearly overreacted to the potential danger of a hairbrush, some of her neighbors don’t want her to testify. Khalil was a low-level drug dealer for King (a menacing Anthony Mackie), whose illegal operations dominate Starr’s block. Testifying in front of the grand jury could endanger her or her family, including her Uncle Carlos (Common), a police officer.
At the same time, many of Starr’s white classmates treat the needless death as an excuse to cut classes or to voice support for causes they neither believe in nor understand.
The late screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Under the Tuscan Sun), working from Angie Thomas’ novel, runs through a seemingly endless parade of well-meaning but horribly inappropriate condolences and advice. Thankfully, a solid cast and George Tillman Jr.’s (Soul Food) no-nonsense direction keep The Hate U Give from becoming a civics lesson instead of a movie.
If Tillman’s pacing is slow, he’s also able to consistently deliver emotional wallops by simply letting his performers do their work. For example, when Carlos admits that he too might have shot Khalil under the right circumstances, the scene works because he doesn’t have to embellish the delicate subject matter. Common’s deadpan carries more weight than a yelling match would. In fact this scene and others like it have just as much if not more impact than the ones where the danger seems more overt.
The Hate U Give
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie,
Issa Rae, Common, Algee Smith, Sabrina Carpenter, K.J. Apa, Dominique Fishback, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Rating: PG-13, for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes