There seems to be a new wave of movies dealing with one of the hot button social issues of our day – police brutality. It’s an important issue but one often caught up in the mire of politics and emotion. Strong feelings on both sides often lead to the conversation spiraling away from the meat of the matter and into frivolous side debates.
Sometimes what we need is a pointed yet levelheaded examination. For the most part that is what we get in director George Tillman Jr’s “The Hate U Give”, a film adapted from Angie Thomas’ young adult novel of the same name. Without question “The Hate U Give” is looking at its issues from a specific point of view, but that doesn’t undercut the relevance of what it has to say nor does it negate the power with which it says it.
In what should be a star-making performance, Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter. She’s a bit of a chameleon, taking on different personas in the two worlds she occupies. During the day she is one of the only African-American kids in her mostly white private prep school. While there she hides anything that may hint at where she is from. And where is she from? The lower income and predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she back-pockets and keeps quiet about her school life especially her white boy friend Chris (KJ Apa).
Keeping her two worlds apart is the easiest thing for Starr, but it’s not without complications. A portion of the movie deals with her bouncing between cultures and finding it hard to fit into either. For Starr it becomes about putting off the facades, discovering who she is, and finding her own distinct voice. Unfortunately the catalyst for Starr’s evolution is a senseless act of violence.
At a late night party in Garden Heights Starr bumps into childhood friend and first crush Khalil (Algee Smith). After gunfire rings out, Kahlil helps Starr out of the party and drives her home. On the way they are pulled over by a patrolman for a lane violation. Minutes later the cop panics, an unarmed Khalil lay shot to death, and Starr is the lone witness.
News of the tragedy reverberates throughout the community, the city, and eventually the nation. Starr’s father Maverick (a terrific Russell Hornsby) wants her to use her voice regardless of her apprehensions. Starr’s mother (an equally good Regina Hall) wants her to stay quiet fearing the repercussions of the spotlight. As Starr is torn between defending her friend and protecting her family, others unknowingly treat her like a pawn for their own agendas. It makes finding her voice even more of a struggle.
While police brutality is the film’s central topic, it explores a host of other racial and socioeconomic issues. It looks at urban poverty, profiling, drug dealing, protesting, among several other things. Screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly died earlier this month) leans on her big lot of characters to explore these subjects. The characters are a strength and even the smallest are authentic and believable pieces of the story. There are a couple exceptions. Her white friends from school often come across as clichés intended to move the narrative in certain directions. And I loved Anthony Mackie as a local gang leader and drug pusher. He is intense and menacing but too often relegated to giving intimidating stares from a distance.
George Tillman Jr. works with a lot of moving parts and manages them with an able hand. He tells a good story while only occasionally dipping too far into melodrama. His movie is very open about about its feelings which is to its credit. At the same time its earnestness occasionally leads the film to paint in broad strokes and dabble in generalizations. But those instances are rare. Ultimately “The Hate U Give” is a film that speaks its mind but does so with optimism. The filmmakers want to make a difference and they truly believe their film can help do so.
VERDICT – 4 STARS