An unarmed black boy is gunned down by police under dubious reasons. The victim’s community rallies around him, bringing national attention to his name and and his untimely death. It’s not long until all eyes are turned to the eventual trial of the police officer involved who, naturally, receives no indictment. The needle on the police brutality meter remains unmoved.
How many times have we heard this story? Too many to even recall them all. So what, might you wonder, is the value of having this very real and very current issue bleed into our entertainment? The Hate U Give, the new film based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Angie Thompson, directed by George Tillman Jr., and starring Amandla Stenberg, tries in earnest to answer that question. This is a coming of age story that evokes films like Ladybird, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society, and the realities of many urban dwelling children of color.
In the film, Stenberg plays Starr, a black high school student caught between two worlds: her prestigious and predominately white private high school and her majority-black neighborhood, which has been ravaged by violence. Early on in the film, Starr witnesses from the passenger seat of a car, her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) get gunned down by a police officer who mistakenly believed that the hairbrush he was pulling from his pocket was a gun. Radicalized by that moment and pushed beyond the brink emotionally, Starr is quickly swept up in a whirlwind that throws her life off-kilter. All at once, she finds herself coping with PTSD, dealing with the mounting stress of being the sole witness to the shooting, evading threats from her community, protesting police brutality, and of course, going to prom.
Starr has SAT prep, an annoying little brother, a boyfriend, fights with friends, basketball practice, and gun violence to rally against–which could feel like the makings of a melodrama until we consider the reality: Nearly two dozen children experience gun violence everyday in this country.
FYI: There have been 11,000+ gun deaths, 21,500+ gun injuries, and 43,500+ incidents of U.S. gun violence in the 275 days of 2018.
— Gun Violence Archive (@GunDeaths) October 2, 2018
Gun violence is part of the daily ebb and flow in communities like Starr’s, which makes the urge to see it fictionalized, dramatized, and depicted on screen, difficult to understand at first blush. This moviegoer for instance, kept asking herself, “Why re-traumatize black America like this?” as she watched.
Stenberg, however, is a revelation. Her performance is visceral and it commands your attention right away. In terms of on-screen power, she is really only matched by Russell Hornsby — who plays Starr’s father Maverick, a former felon and rehabilitated ex gang member.
But the ensemble cast nevertheless succeeds at portraying a strong and emotionally complicated black family. Starr’s mother, Lisa, is a fierce maternal protector, played by the always refreshing Regina Hall. Her little brothers, played by Lamar Johnson and TJ Wright, weave deftly between providing comic relief and pathos. Collectively, these convincingly portrayed familial bonds help to underscore the pervasive nature of the gun violence that’s always threatening to unravel them — a fact that comes to a head during the intense few moments of the film’s final act.
Along the way, Starr has another mission to perform — she has to be the tribune of her community, guiding her white friends and white boyfriend towards a deeper understanding of the complexity of being black in America. Her peers from this other, privileged world in which she travels offer their own complications. One friend sees their school closing early so they can participate in a protest as a way out of a math test. Her boyfriend seems to understand solidarity in the tritest of terms, at one point dispensing that hoary old shrug, “I don’t see color.” At another point a friend, resembling the worst of the worst takes you see on Facebook, suggests that Khalil — not knowing he was Starr’s childhood best friend — was just a thug and that that police’s life matters too.
Once again, these conflicts aren’t new for black Americans. We’ve spent years enmeshed in them with friends, in classrooms, with coworkers, and online. We’ve gone to bat time and time again. Whole movements have been erected. And yet, the song remains the same. Starr’s story, too, ends very similarly. After all the dust she kicks up clears, Khalil’s death simply becomes one more name added to a long litany of injustices.
Starr, however, emerges from the experience a changed woman. Over the course of the film, Starr evolves. In the beginning she’s complacent, just doing what she can to go undetected at school and back home in her neighborhood. She ends the movie radicalized, unapologetic, and most impressively, still clinging to a pure level of hope.
And ultimately, that’s the point of this exercise, to stir some kind of hope for the future in the viewer. It’s a goal that’s likely going to be lost on older (admittedly more cynical) moviegoers, who may simply see the events depicted in The Hate U Give as just the daily news of their lives playing out on the screen, with no refuge offered or solution suggested. But much like Starr herself, it’s those younger viewers who may come away feeling altered by the experience, with a bold shero their own age — filled with a rage and armed with productive ways to express it — to remember to emulate. Those viewers may very well have the perspective to extract the lesson that when you don’t get the justice you deserve, you still need some measure of hope to rise again to greet tomorrow — however many tomorrows it will take.