The Hate U Give is a powerfully, deeply felt drama of earnest intent and honest anger. Director George Tillman Jr. directs the fiery rage and passion of this story in an incredibly smart and human fashion by staying steadfastly within the confines of the character of Starr played by Amandla Stenberg. Stenberg has struggled to find herself in lesser vehicles such Darkest Minds and Everything, Everything, but here, her star qualities are fully unleashed.
For Starr, there are two versions of life. There is the side that attends a toney, suburban Catholic School where she pretends as if she doesn’t live in a crime-addled ghetto and the other where she’s more herself, among family and friends who have a hard time imagining the what a struggle it is to maintain identity for Starr. The film is about Starr’s journey to unite herself even more than it is about the desire to unite everyone.
On a weekend away from here white Catholic School friends, Starr attends a party at which she reconnects with her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith). The two leave the party together in a hurry after gunshots go off and Khalil gives Starr a ride home. The two reminisce, share a romantic moment and then are pulled over by a white police officer. Starr has been prepared for this her whole life by her parents Lisa and Maverick (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) but there is only so much preparation that can be done in a situation like this.
Starr’s parents taught a lot of things but their version of ‘The talk’ is not one most parents would recognize. The talk for the Carter family is about police violence and not sex. It’s a talk about making sure the kids know exactly what to do when, not if, crucially, when they get pulled over by a police officer. Sadly, Khalil did not have a similar talk with his family. Khalil does all the wrong things in that fateful traffic stop but it is reaching for a hairbrush in the front seat that sets the plot of The Hate U Give.
When Khalil is shot and found to not have have a weapon in him, it sets off a firestorm of controversy. Starr is at the center of that story, troubled by various forces surrounding the shooting such as not being able to trust the police and the justice system to being warned by a long time drug kingpin in her town who doesn’t want anyone knowing that Khalil worked for him. Then the question becomes: Does Starr risk her life to make sure people remember Khalil or should she protect herself from potential harm from all sides.
George Tillman Jr makes this central conflict incredibly powerful. Tillman has a seemingly innate instinct for the right moments in The Hate U Give. He has masterful control of the pace, flashback choices and especially on the roiling emotions of the town surrounding Starr and the roiling inner emotions of Starr who is torn between revealing herself for the sake of speaking out for Khalil or keeping quiet in order to be safe.
The Hate U Give is exceptionally evenhanded for a movie that deals frankly and honestly regarding police violence in the inner city. The film even pauses for a moment so that Common, who plays Starr’s uncle Carlos, a police officer, can explain how an officer might end up killing an innocent, unarmed young black man. He doesn’t side with the police but being an officer himself, he understands both sides very well.
It’s a bold decision by director George Tillman Jr. to offer understanding to officers who do what the officer in this movie does serves to add even more depth and seriousness to the discussion at the heart of The Hate U Give. The film is among smartest and most thoughtful examinations of race relations I’ve seen outside of a documentary feature and this powerhouse scene is given weight and emotion to go with the heart-rending realism of the moment.
The Hate U Give is required viewing. It’s a powerful, of the moment movie with not just a theme of Black Lives Matter but the sensitivity to get audiences to understand what Black Lives Matter truly means beyond its nature as a slogan. This a vital movie, one with compassion, soul and guts, and a core of smart filmmaking that boils these complex and uncomfortable conversations down to human terms via smart and thoughtful character-work.
The Hate U Give is among the best movies of 2018.