Not ten years into her career, Amandla Stenberg boasts a remarkable oeuvre. Having shot to fame in Gary Ross’ inaugural Hunger Games, the young star has already accumulated a string of leading roles, an NAACP nomination and Beyoncé music video appearance. In The Hate U Give, Stenberg offers those unfamiliar with her work a chance to understand her stratospheric rise. This is a powerful performance from a premiere talent. It helps, of course, that the film is terrific.
Whereas Suzanne Collins’ ‘Hunger Games’ series explored the adolescent experience through the paralleling perspective of a dystopian future – as so many young adult novels do – Angie Thomas’ debut gained impetus by its firmly real-world, contemporary setting. Inspired by her personal response to the tragic murder of Oscar Grant in 2009, Thomas wrote ‘The Hate U Give’ to serve a relatable voice to the anger, pain and love of black communities under attack from the innately prejudiced American police force. This is no David and Goliath affair – the story is much more nuanced than that – but it exposes deeply pertinent concerns in a divided society. Thomas took her title from the THUG LIFE concept of Tupac Shakur: The Hate You Give Little Infants F****s Everybody.
Notorious director George Tillman Jr. works from a script adaptation by the late Audrey Wells to bring Thomas’ best-selling book to screen, where the original message remains as relevant as it did on first conception. Stenberg plays Starr Carter, an African American teen straddling a double life between the poor neighbourhood in which she lives and the affluent, mostly white, school at which she learns. Here, the distinction is achieved both via contrasting verbal exchange rhythms and a colour palette designed to visualise Starr’s dilemma; at school, she is a de-saturated version of herself.
Tillman Jr. does well to capture realist beats in both halves of Starr’s life, with her home life benefiting from a depiction of very believable networks and her school time ringing with linguistic truth. Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby are excellent as Starr’s parents, Lisa and Maverick, the latter of whom has well versed her, along with older brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and younger Sekani (TJ Wright), how to respond to a police pullover. ‘Big Mav’ is a former drug dealer turned good, Black Panther loyalist and honest, guiding force. If Wells’ script occasionally wears heavy Thomas’ character’ aphorisms, it is only because their truth is worth telling.
After an engaging but light-hearted opening, The Hate U Give takes an intense turn when Starr is witness to the shooting of her childhood crush Khalil (a likeable Algee Smith) by a trigger-happy white officer. From hereon, our journey is raw, impactful and heart-wrenching; it is a story of injustice and the fight to be heard. Although much of the credit for the film’s emotion resonance certainly lies in the empathetic performance of its lead, Tillman Jr. warrants credit for a solid directorial approach that is well supported by music from Dustin O’Halloran. Racism is tackled here with an impressive sense of scope and diversity that is often lacking in black and white passion pieces. Confrontation lies here not just in violent encounters but also in sideways glances and casual cultural appropriation: ‘slang makes them cool; slang makes me hood’.
In the year that has given cinema a taste of Black Panther magic, The Hate U Give is not just another fashionable entry into Hollywood’s supposed newfound wokeness. It is true that there is importance to the subject matter but is that not always so in the very best films? Take this as a superior offering in a sea of dystopian features that fail to take their young adult audiences seriously. Great work all round.