When a film is adapted from a beloved and lauded book, there’s pressure to deliver on the promise and attachment of the characters created in the text. The Hate U Give, the YA novel by Angie Thomas, is no exception. The book is a New York Times bestseller and won several book prizes for young adult literature since its 2017 release. It’s also a hotly contested banned book in many schools for its frank and honest discussion of police shootings of unarmed, young black men.
With all this attention and the timeliness of the plot, it’s no surprise the film was fast tracked into production (also the release coincides nicely with the recent banned books week). With the relatively quick turn around from novel to film, audiences may worry that the movie may be a thin representation of the book—luckily, that’s definitely not the case.
The Hate U Give (the title based off the Tupac THUG LIFE concept: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody) focuses on high schooler Starr (played by Amandla Stenberg) who balances an existence between two worlds: that of her hometown of Garden Heights which has issues of poverty, drug trade, and gang violence and the whitewashed, elitist environment of her private school. When one of her longtime friends (and first love) from Garden Heights Khalil (Algee Smith) gets killed by a white cop at an unnecessary traffic stop while Starr is in the passenger seat, her life gets thrown completely off course and she can no longer code switch and keep her life segregate. With the help of her family and her community, she’s pushed to assert her true voice.
Stenberg’s performance as Starr is so dynamic and intimate. She’s capable of conveying so much emotion within her face, whether that be affection or horror or betrayal. To be able to let an audience into her mind even before she speaks any dialogue is a gift. Even with the benefit of voice over, which helps align the viewer to how Starr sees the two very different spaces she inhabits, Stenberg makes Starr believable and easy to root for. So much of the film hinges on the brief moment in the start of the film: she reconnects with Khalil, and that such a young actress at almost 20 years old can reveal years of love and connection through just looks bodes very well for her future. Stenberg on a personal level is also famously outspoken and Ms Foundation of Women names her their Feminist of the Year in 2015. This film, being very politically outspoken and charged, feels like the perfect coming out film for Stenberg as an adult actress that’s engaging and compelling to watch.
Stenberg may carry the film, but the cast that makes up her family is the really wonderful surprise from novel to screen. Starr’s family within the book (her father, mother, little brother, and half brother) get discussed as being close and protective but the actors cast as the family do their literary descriptions even greater justice. Russell Hornsby as Maverick, Starr’s father—a tough man with a soft side who speaks frankly to his children about Black Power and racial injustice involving police—is a revelation. Like Stenberg, he can deliver so much in a glance, but also portrays a man that contains multitudes. He and Regina Hall (as Starr’s mother Lisa) have an excellent chemistry and their relationship as a couple and as parents feels very present. Lamar Johnson and TJ Wright as Starr’s half brother and brother Seven and Sekani, respectfully, help to create a family dynamic that is full of warmth and a very lived-in routine.
This film, while tackling very large issues of police brutality and race, really hinges on Starr’s connection to her family and community in creating her sense of identity. That’s why the fact that the cast of the Carter family feeling so real and loving really helps to ground the big ideas in something that feels very real and genuine.
Director George Tillman Jr. and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. make a really smart and clever choice to shoot the neighborhood and family scenes with very warm filters, while shooting the scenes in Starr’s private school in very cold blues and grays. It helps to separate Starr’s worlds while also showing the one that feels most full and tangible to Starr. Tillman Jr. broke out as a film director in 1997’s hit Soul Food, which also centers on a complicated but deeply connected family, so it’s easy to see how he could foster those same feelings of camaraderie within this cast.
High praise also goes to screenwriter Audrey Wells, normally known for more straightforward feel good films like Under the Tuscan Sun or The Truth About Cats and Dogs, for finding an excellent blend of warmth and heart and humor within a larger story of violence and injustice and racial inequality.
One of the only real low points in the film is the thin portrayal of Starr’s private school friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa). Hailey is insensive and harmfully un-self aware from the film’s start and does contain any nuance whatsoever. Granted, she doesn’t in the book either. But there’s no indication why Starr would have been friends with this girl in the first place. Chris, on the other hand, in the novel has a sweet rapport and chemistry with Starr that unfortunately feels missing between Stenberg and Apa in the film.
There are times when the film touches upon topics like African Americans in the police force and their views on racism within law enforcement through the character of Starr’s detective uncle (played by Common), but could have used even more probing than just a quick exchange of dialogue between Starr and her uncle. There is only time to hit on so much within this two hour film, and to its credit it tackles a whole lot that will engender discussion between adults and teenagers alike.