After seeing The Hate U Give, I tried to think back on what movies I saw as a (white, middle-class, Midwestern) teenager that might have taught me about racism. The best I could come up with were Dances with Wolves and La Bamba. When the 1992 L.A. riots happened, all the media I had to help me process the news was an in-school news broadcast and a Tom Petty cassingle. “Peace in L.A.,” he sang. “What happened was wrong.”
Needless to say, I’m glad today’s teens have The Hate U Give. It centers on a deadly incident of white-on-black police violence, and unpacks the racial dynamics behind that shooting at length — but it also explores topics like code-switching, appropriation, and mass incarceration. That makes it sound like a textbook, but it’s more of a vocabulary booster: an acknowledgement of the implications of racial injustice today in plain, and often very moving, terms.
George Tillman Jr.’s new movie is adapted from an acclaimed and wildly popular young-adult novel by Angie Thomas. That book just came out last year, and the film unfurls with the urgency of a story that speaks squarely to its time. Based on the enthusiastic response of the preview audience I saw the film with, it will affirm those who know its truths and educate those who don’t.
Amandla Stenberg, who’s built a remarkable career of acting and activism but is still most widely known as Rue from The Hunger Games, delivers a soaring performance as Starr, an African-American teen from a black inner-city community whose parents (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) enroll her at an affluent, largely white private school. When her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) dies during one of America’s appallingly familiar deadly traffic stops, Starr’s mourning is accompanied by crushing pressure from all sides. Telling her story is risky, but does she have any choice?
It’s a story packed with dramatic incident, but Tillman and screenwriter Audrey Wells nonetheless find room for their characters to breathe, befitting Starr’s observation that it’s not sufficient for people to consider the circumstances of Khalil’s death: they have to appreciate how he lived, to understand, for those who perpetually don’t, that black lives matter.
Starr’s family life glows with a warm dynamic that doesn’t sugarcoat the tensions surrounding the break in her parents’ relationship that led to the conception of her half-brother (Lamar Johnson). We meet her peers, including a frenemy (Sabrina Carpenter) who illustrates the principle that white kids at Starr’s school can safely use black slang, while black kids themselves can’t.
The film’s most intimate scenes leave a lasting impression. Starr’s father sits his kids down at the table, and later stands them up in the yard, to warn them about racism (with grade-schoolers being taught how to spread their hands non-threateningly on a dashboard) — but also to admonish them to “never forget that being black is a privilege, because you come from greatness.”