REVIEW: ‘The Hate U Give’ is a provacative teen drama worth seeing

Amandla Stenberg gives a career-making performance in the film.

the hate u give
20th Century Fox

Tupac Shakur fans will recall his T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. mantra and its meaning is at the core of The Hate U Give, a film based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel of the same title.

The acronym stands for “The hate you gave little infants fu*ks everybody,” and highlights the deep-rooted inequalities that permeate our society and our communities.

The film that stars Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, and Russell Hornsby is a teen-drama for sure, but it also provokes deep thought on the dualities we all employ to get through life and it does so beautifully.

While the storyline tackles many issues at the forefront of our minds and headlines today, like rampant police brutality, code-switching, and problems plaguing the inner city, it does so through the lens of one girl and doesn’t attempt to provide answers to some of our most pressing questions. Instead, it offers a chance at understanding and is certainly a catalyst for conversations that we should all be having in our homes.

Amandla Stenberg is masterful in her role of Starr Carter, a teenager who is constantly balancing two versions of herself. She’s one person at home, with her family, in her poor, Black neighborhood of Garden Heights, surrounded by people who look like her and talk like her. She’s a very different girl when she’s at Williamson Prep, the predominately white school the and her brother attend across town.

Her parents, Lisa and Maverick Carter (played by Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) send her to the prestigious private school to keep her out of harm’s way because it’s a well-known fact that the local high school is more likely to land her behind bars or pregnant than offer her a well-rounded education.

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The mission while at Williamson Prep is to blend in at all costs. That means no slang, no issues, and no retaliation when classmates start working her nerves. Anyone who has had to navigate a lilly-white environment can relate to this need to fit in and get by while attracting as little attention as possible. So can any Black person who has to get through each day without ruffling feathers of the masses. Look no further than the current trend of white folks calling the cops on Black people for sleeping, eating, breathing, or God forbid, having a BBQ.

The story is centered on the repercussions of one night, when Starr finds herself in a situation that will change her forever. After a neighborhood party turns violent, she gets a ride from her childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), who deals drugs for The King Lords, the gang that essentially runs Garden Heights.

On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for failing to use his turn signal and is subsequently shot and killed by a white police officer after he reaches into the car to grab a hairbrush, which the policeman mistakes for a gun.

The scene is hard to watch because you know what’s going to happen the moment Khalil is pulled over. It’s also hard to swallow because as infuriating as the end result is; the scene paints a picture of what is happening across the country on a regular basis.

Unlike Starr, Khalil clearly didn’t receive or understand “the talk” that so many Black parents are forced to have with their children. It’s not about the birds and the bees, but a much more dire issue: how to stay alive when you’re confronted by police. The talk is a rite of passage and a necessary conversation to keep our kids from ending up like Khalil, infuriating as that sad fact is. Khalil didn’t easily comply with the officer’s requests, he didn’t stay quiet and he didn’t keep his hand in plain sight, and he ended up dead on the sidewalk.

Here is one place where many people may have a problem with the film. In this highly sensitive time where Black men and women are being exterminated by the people sworn to protect them, some people have no room in their hearts or minds for victim-blaming.

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The film’s director, George Tillman Jr., could have painted a picture where Khalil gave the officer no reason to fear him, but instead chose to depict a more realistic situation. Does Khalil’s sassy mouth warrant a bullet? Of course not. But the sad reality is that Black men don’t have the same privileges as white folks, and one bad decision can and will leave them dead.

This point is driven-home in another moment in the film, when Starr’s uncle, Carlos (played by Common) admits that even as a Black police officer, Khalil would likely have suffered the same fate if he was the one to pull him over. If a white boy had reached in to the car, he would have received a warning. If a Black boy did the same thing, he’d get a bullet.

For me, this is an important message to send at a time that our people are in constant danger. It’s also a harsh reality teens struggle to accept or understand. Fortunately, the story didn’t end there and the realization of happened prompts Starr to go on a journey of self-discovery and find her true voice, scary as that may be.

As the only witness to the shooting, Starr’s testimony is crucial for justice-seekers who want to see the officer charged for Khalil’s murder. The notion of stepping into the spotlight threatens the “under the radar” existence she has worked so hard to cultivate at Williamson Prep and also puts her family at risk from The King Lords, who want her to stay silent.

Seeing Starr struggle through her feelings about her white friends, her white boyfriend, her broken heart, and her quest for justice is powerful, entertaining, hopeful, and heartbreaking all at once.

Is the script a masterpiece? No. But all the films can’t be all things. It’s a movie that provokes thought and illuminates previously elusive ideas of how other people see things. In my opinion, it stands to do more to foster white folks’ understanding of what Black folks deal with on a daily basis than it does to explain or justify their continued racism. As an adaptation of a teen novel that explores issues of race, code-switching, and police brutality through the eyes on one young girl, it’s noble and as a vehicle to start important conversations in people’s homes, it’s a win.

The Hate U Give is in theaters now.