THUG-012 – Amandla Stenberg stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE HATE U GIVE. Photo Credit: Erika Doss.
The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman, Jr. and written by Audrey Wells, is a powerful and emotionally mature discussion about police brutality disguised as a teen film. It reveals its intentions in its name, a reference to a Tupac song proclaiming, “THUG LIFE: The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody”. It is a call to action, a poignant and derisive commentary on the media, and a reflection on liberal appropriation of black culture all wrapped up in a two hour film and bookended by teen tropes. Its biggest flaw is its apparent need to cater to this culture—a slow exposition peppered with cringe-worthy teen lingo makes a slow beginning to an otherwise incredibly well-articulated film.
It begins by introducing us to its heroine, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), and her family; Starr is nine years old, her brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) is ten, their youngest brother Sekani (TJ Wright) is only a baby. Their father, Maverick (Russel Hornsby), tells them in a serious voice how to react if they are pulled over and questioned by the cops. Their hands lay on the table, open and empty. There is something incredibly saddening in this scene, something of a loss of innocence, that sets the tone for the entirety of the film. Maverick passes out a list of rules listing their rights and rules of living, The Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program. It demands an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people. He tells them to memorize this, because it could save their lives.
Years later, Starr is sixteen and tells us about her life in the typical YA film voiceover—she loves her parents and her family and is seemingly a normal teenager, yet she is leading a double life. One version of Starr lives in poor, black Garden Heights, while the other version attends a private, wealthy and predominantly white high school. These worlds could not be more juxtaposed, and this is emphasized even by the lighting and color of the two: the white world is plain grays and blues, and her home and neighborhood shine with vibrant, warm colors.
However, Starr has distanced herself from her culture, her old friends, her old way of life, and instead has a white boyfriend, wealthy friends, and does her best to keep her second life secret. This exposition may be needed but is executed in an awkward, teen drama-esque fashion, with painful use of millennial aphorisms that don’t feel true to the voice of the rest of the film.
It takes almost forty minutes for the film to really establish its vision. We learn that Saturdays are when Starr indulges in her second life, her black life. She attends a party in her neighborhood and meets up with her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith); they used to be close, but now Starr attends a different school, and Khalil has been roped into dealing drugs to support his addict mother. After an altercation at the party, the two leave together and drive home.
It is then that the film gets going—the two are pulled over by a cop for failing to signal a lane change. Starr immediately puts her hands flat on the dashboard and begs Khalil to do the same. He laughs it off and debates with the cop, who then commands him to get out of the car. He is instructed to stand still while the officer checks his license. However, the seemingly unbothered Khalil leans into the car window to check in with the visibly terrified Starr, and as he reaches into the drivers seat to retrieve his hairbrush, he is shot by the cop for “holding a gun”.
Starr is thrown into a world of responsibility and morality that no sixteen year old should undergo—she is the only witness to the crime, yet she doesn’t wish to disrupt the status quo at her school or be known as the “black kid who saw her friend get shot”. She is questioned by the cops, yet they focus on Khalil’s wrongdoings, already establishing the media’s typical spin on black death: he was a drug dealer, a thug, a criminal and therefore the cop was only doing his job.
Starr is visited by an attorney named April Ofrah (Issa Rae), who is the spokesperson for an organization called Just Us for Justice. She encourages Starr to testify in the grand jury that will determine whether the officer is sent to trial. Here we learn this isn’t the first time Starr has seen a friend die at the hands of racial violence—she tells April that her other childhood best friend, Natasha, was shot by a member of a gang called the King Lords when she was only a child. The King Lords run Garden Heights and control the inflow of drugs and crime—Khalil worked for them, and Starr’s father is an ex-convict who had escaped the gang. Starr didn’t do anything for Natasha and grapples with the responsibility to be a good friend to Khalil and do what she believes she failed to do for Natasha.
There is a plethora of both internal and external conflict within the film. Starr grapples with not acting “too black” with her school friends, who in turn casually appropriate the culture she cannot display, yet she also must balance not acting “too white” when she is with her black friends. She lives in an isolated world of never truly fitting in wherever she goes and struggles to find her voice.
She also struggles with the expectations of both her father and mother. Her father wishes her to embrace her blackness, to stand proud and to shout loud, whereas her mother pressures her to remain focused on school and to forgive and forget. Her Uncle Carlos (Common), a cop, sides with her mother and tells her that the world is complicated and recommends she doesn’t testify. To make matters worse, she and her father also face threats from King (Anthony Mackie), the leader of the King Lords, after exposing the drug ring on local television.
A poster in Starr’s locker proclaims, “Nevertheless, she persisted”; and this is, of course, what Starr does. Despite the odds, she testifies, and we watch Starr come into her own throughout the film. Her growth is truly captured in a protest scene where she stands high and shouts into a megaphone that Khalil didn’t die, but rather he lived, and it was because he lived as a black person that he was killed. Starr shouts as loud as the film itself, screaming that this isn’t the way the world should be and that there is hope to escape the cycle of violence, the cycle of hate. We see her defy her “white” way of life by standing up to a friend who pretends to be woke, yet defends the cop who shot Khalil, and Tillman makes poignant criticism of modern liberalism as Starr tells her boyfriend who “doesn’t see color” that, “if you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.”
Ultimately, this captures the film’s end goal: it wants to be seen. Tillman’s vision is strongest during the film’s more mature moments, the moments of seriousness where its authenticity can shine through. It suffers from its attempt to cater to the audience and hide its political commentary under the guise of a teen film—it is almost as if there are two, separate films within one, just like Starr’s double life. One version of the film is strong, loud, and powerfully critical of America, while the other stumbles and attempts to tie everything into a neat bow of a happy ending and cringe-worthy dialogue. Perhaps if Tillman had not been tied to making a film that could be marketed to the youth, he would have achieved the full potential displayed in the strongest moments. In spite of the shortcomings, the film does its job and leaves a lasting impact on its viewers, and certainly shouts its message to the world: the hate u give little infants f***s everybody.