Sixteen year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, "Everything, Everything") presents two different faces to the two worlds she inhabits. She can be her own, black self in Garden Heights, the poor neighborhood where her dad Maverick (Russell Hornsby, "Fences"), a former drug dealing ex-con, runs a local grocery store, although her diction sometimes gets her tagged as 'too white.' Starr's mother Lisa (Regina Hall), who'd like to leave Garden Heights, protects Starr, her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) by sending them to Williamson Prep School in a well-to-do white area where Starr drops her slang and frustrates her white boyfriend Chris ('Riverdale's' K.J. Apa) with her reticence. Those worlds collide when Starr witnesses a white cop's panicked shooting of her unarmed childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith, "Detroit") in "The Hate U Give."
It is unfortunate that the people who need to see this film the most, those who do not 'get' the Black Lives Matter movement, are the least likely to step up and buy a ticket. Adapted from Angie Thomas's YA novel (named for Tupac Shakur's Thug Life acronym) by Audrey Wells ("Under the Tuscan Sun"), this powerful film gives us so much empathy for its characters you cannot fail to be outraged at the systemic injustice it depicts. Director George Tillman Jr. ("The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete") has elicited rich and varied performances from his large ensemble cast while mining all level of nuances from his story.
Take the film's extraordinary opening. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s ("The Master") camera finds a warmly lit house and snakes through a front window to find a family sitting formally around a dining room table. Maverick is giving his kids 'the talk,' a ritual known to most black American families that their white counterparts couldn't even conceive of, about how to behave submissively around police officers, before asking them to recite pieces of the Black Panthers' Ten-Point Program. Safety and justice are both important in the Carter household, but as she grows older, Starr will realize they cannot both be equally upheld.
Walking down a crowded school corridor, Starr informs us 'Slang makes them cool,' but although her friends have appropriated her language, if she uses it it 'makes her hood.' She gets side eye from rich white girls who see her with Chris, but enjoys close friendship with Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and Maya (Megan Lawless). Still, she has never allowed Chris to come to her house, instead setting meeting places within his comfort zone. He asks her out on a Saturday night and she asks if they can go Sunday instead. Starr's meeting her Garden Heights friend, Kenya (Dominique Fishback, HBO's 'The Deuce'), to go to a house party. She runs into Khalil, overjoyed to see her. They and another girl (we'll learn her fate later) were childhood friends and Khalil clearly carries a torch for Starr, so when a fight breaks out, he quickly gets her out of there to get her home safely. Their quiet conversation in his car is illuminating, Khalil forced down the same path as Maverick to care for a cancer-ridden grandmother. They share a kiss, Starr informing him of her boyfriend while he states a willingness to wait. Then a revolving light goes on behind them.
After the shooting, Starr is handcuffed and taken to the police station where her questioning revolves more around Khalil's background than Officer MacIntosh's (Drew Starkey) behavior. Her interrogators are astonished when she's whisked out by one of their own, Starr's Uncle Carlos (Common). Then Starr and her family are threatened by Garden Height's drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who Maverick once worked for and who does not want to be associated with his latest recruit, Khalil.
The screenplay is richly layered. We see the conflict between the drug trade and family run businesses in a poor black neighborhood, code switching, victim smearing, gun violence and the perils of speaking out against injustice. Racial conflict comes to the fore at Starr's high school, where white students enjoy skipping tests to protest and Hailey tries to justify what happened. Local organizer April Ofrah (Issa Rae) convinces Starr to testify and Garden Heights descends into the madness of Ferguson. In the midst of all this chaos, Chris takes Starr to their prom and once again we see the ideological split within Maverick and Lisa's otherwise loving marriage when Starr's dad learns her boyfriend is white.
Amandla Stenberg shoulders the entire film, every conflict simmering within her building a head of steam, the quiet student convincingly turned vocal social justice warrior. Also exceptional is Hornsby as a man with the intelligence to see how an unjust system contributed to his unlawful path while taking personal responsibility to effect change. King neatly overlays her support of her husband with the counterpoint of maternal fear. Smith paints an extraordinarily deep portrait of Khalil in scant screen time, his loss fully registering. Apa gives a sensitive performance, although Chris is one of those almost too good to be true boyfriends (shades of "Everything, Everything).
Yet people like Chris do exist, just as whites died fighting for civil rights. In a year that has featured "Black Panther," "Black Klansman," "Sorry to Bother You" and "Blindspotting," who would have predicted that an adaptation of a YA novel would be the year's most trenchant exploration of racial injustice in today's America.
Robin did not see this film.
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