The Hate U Give burns with a righteous anger. Director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells wrangle the searing social conscience and incisive melodrama of Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel into what is very likely the most meaningful film of 2018. Thought-provoking and morally challenging, beautifully acted and poignantly directed, THUG is a moving, necessary, and often hilarious, rarity; a mainstream, race-relations pop-art primal scream whose vital message is only intensified by its raw watchability.
From the very first frame, The Hate U Give asserts just how unsurrendering this hypothetical teen drama is going to be. A father of three and reformed gangster, Maverick (Russell Hornsby in a star-making turn) sits his children down for “the talk”. And no, this is not the familiar sitcom-friendly “talk” sexually-aspiring white teenagers endure. It’s the “Police are not your friend, for you are black, my child” talk. For African-Americans, in 2018, this talk remains a necessary evil. This fact is a national embarrassment. At ten, seven, and three, Maverick’s kids must learn the dangers of being black in America. Their years of Saturday cartoons and strawberry milk are accented with the impossible reality that police see the very skin they live in as a threat. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, extraordinary in the role) embodies the teachings of her father. Perhaps to a fault. Her oldest friend Khalil (Algee Smith, aglow with charisma), a happy-go-lucky victim of inner-city circumstance, never learned this lesson. And he pays dearly for it. The Hate U Give tells a story all too familiar to the news cycle: a white cop killing an unarmed black kid. In this case, a black kid trying to impress a girl, reaching for his hairbrush. Khalil lived. Khalil died.
Starr, caught between two lives, is a teen divided before she sees her childhood friend slaughtered. On the one hand, she is a hardworking student at a private school. She also lives in the projects. There’s an imbalance that percolates within her. She has a white boyfriend. White BFFs. She issues their casual ebonics a soft pass while acknowledging the double standard that prevents her from liberally using her people’s slang. What is cool for them is perceived as “ghetto” for her. White kids love to act hood, while their black friends are judged for the same behaviors and colloquialisms. Even these early conversations speak to the ugly double standard that the black characters in THUG are held to.
When Starr is the only witness to Khalil’s murder, she reckons with the implosion of her two worlds, witness also to the disintegrating levy that had long divided her “white” and “black” lives and facing public pressure to become a speaker for justice in Khalil’s murder. Stenberg is exceptional at teasing out the imbalances that wear at Starr, the passion that thrums inside her, and the fear that keeps her quiet.
The Hate U Give is equally an American race relations study and coming-of-age story, interweaving the two in indivisible fashion. It challenges viewers with the everyday casualness of racism, and the construct of blackness as a weapon. Issa Rae plays an activist for invented special interest group “Just Us for Justice” who preaches at Khalil’s funeral. “How can we be unarmed,” she begs, “when our blackness is seen as a weapon?” Fist bump.
Tillman’s portrait of black identity and police brutality captures the American racial zeitgeist without easy sensationalization, sidestepping cheap finger-pointing and pressuring out the inner internal conflicts that perpetual cycles of violence in this country. A conversation shared between Starr and her beat cop uncle (played by Common) further teases out the stain of hypocrisy. Even he, a black cop, admits that he’s more likely to shoot a black man than his Caucasian brethren. THUG doesn’t excuse his behavior. It doesn’t necessarily quickly condemn it either. Rather, it sits with it. It contemplates and, by proxy, forces the viewer to as well.
In each nook and cranny, Tillman smuggles meaning. From its bespoke hip-hop soundtrack (Kendrick Lamar’s Pultizer Prize-winning work leans against Tupac classics) to the way Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master) lights scenes to invoke the film’s themes; the predominantly-white private school and homemaker McMansions basked in a Mr. Clean sterilized glow; the projects afforded a generous warmth, even among its darkest shadows; in every way, this is a carefully constructed piece of film.
All this and it’s funny. And romantic. And charming. And pulse-spiking.
2018 has already seen a film force difficult conversations about race in Spike Lee’s excellent BlacKkKlansman and though that film rages with a similarly potent and meaningful magnetism, its R-rating means that many who can use exposure to the moral outrage of Lee’s historical account are restricted access to it. The Hate U Give benefits from being essential viewing for teens and adults alike, that teens and adults alike can see in the theater. Although THUG relays the point that we as a society shouldn’t aspire to not see color (but rather to acknowledge it and how it makes us who we are), this is the new gold standard for PG-13 teen films.
CONCLUSION: “Trigger Warning: ‘The Hate U Give’ adorns its audience with a vital deconstruction of race and police aggression in America in remarkably challenging but highly entertaining, evocative, and moving fashion. The acting is fantastic, the direction remarkably thoughtful, the script powerful and complex. Hands down one of the best and most important movies of the year.”