2018 has given moviegoers so many films reflecting the current state of our country. One of the biggest, and most divisive, topics is the conflict between police and black citizens. Two of the best of the year, BlacKkKlansman and Blindspotting, explored that relationship in their own ways. Now comes The Hate U Give, about a young black woman who witnesses a white cop shooting a young black man. It is a powerful, emotional, drama with several strong messages and a brilliant lead performance. If nothing else, the current social climate has led to some pretty amazing filmmaking.
The story revolves around Starr Carter, a high school student who lives with her parents and two brothers in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. However, partly to keep them safe, the kids go to the mostly white school outside of town. This gives Starr an identity crisis. During the week, she tries to behave in a manner she thinks will be acceptable to her white friends. On the weekends, she goes to parties and hangs out with the kids from her neighborhood. Coming home from a party one night with her friend Khalil, they are pulled over by a cop and Khalil is shot and killed. The already tense city overflows with anger, forcing Starr to dig down deep to discover who she is and what she believes in.
Before I discuss the overall film, I would like to talk about its star, Amandla Stenberg. Two months ago, in my review of the YA sci-fi adaptation The Darkest Minds, I wrote about her command of the screen and called her a star in the making. The Hate U Give is a much more challenging project, with heavier subject matter. She has to carry some very complex themes, along with the movie’s message. She is absolutely incredible. I have never gone through what her character experiences in this story, but I had no trouble empathizing with Starr. Though still only 19, Stenberg is one of those actors who can convey difficult emotions in a small gesture. She is a star and her work here belongs on the list of the best performances, regardless of age or gender, of 2018.
She is given tremendous assistance by the screenplay (by Audrey Wells, who sadly passed away earlier this month; it is based on the 2017 YA novel by Angie Thomas) and the focused direction by George Tillman Jr. The Hate U Give (126 minutes, minus the end credits) deals with sensitive material. Police shootings, personal identity, racial prejudice and personal responsibility are just a few of the major issues it covers. It confronts all of them head on in a thoughtful way. By placing them in the context of Starr’s story, it allows the filmmakers to humanize these things. This way viewers can get completely wrapped up in the immediate plot, then ponder its implications after they leave the theater. The story itself is very good, but watching the movie use its sadly realistic setup to show what life is like for all the Starr’s of the world becomes an uncommonly powerful viewing experience.
A lot of topical films that rely on speeches to make their points can come off as preachy. This is not the case here because its characters and their journey are so easy to engage with. Its message never gets in the way of the story it is telling. Nothing is forced or contrived. The way things develop feels natural; almost inevitable. This is a great movie that also happens to have interesting things to say. This is a smart, fascinating, thought-provoking piece of entertainment that gives Amandla Stenberg the opportunity to display her skills in a very moving performance. The Hate U Give may seem like just another teen drama, but it is one of the best movies of the year. See it.
4¾ out of 5
Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter
Russell Hornsby as Maverick Carter
Regina Hall as Lisa Carter
Lamar Johnson as Seven Carter
TJ Wright as Sekani
Anthony Mackie as King
Common as Carlos
K.J. Apa as Chris
Issa Rae as April Ofrah
Algee Smith as Khalil
Sabrina Carpenter as Hailey
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Screenplay by Audrey Wells