In 2017 a little novel made its debut called “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas focusing on a young woman becoming a voice after a black friend is shot by a white cop. The book skyrocketed to instant popularity with 20th Century Fox getting the jump on the film rights a year before the book was even released. Now in 2018 that cinematic adaptation is finally in theaters and it’s one of several films this year to tackle the issue of race discrimination by cop. After having seen the overlooked masterpiece that was “Blindspotting” earlier this year I decided to give “The Hate U Give” a shot and see how well it holds up. So is this popular social justice-themed film a pretentious mess or a legitimately insightful look at a race-related issue to wake up the masses? Heck, is it both? Let’s dive in. This is my review of “The Hate U Give”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Hate U Give” stars Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter, a young black teenager who lives in the mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights with her mother Lisa (Regina Hall), brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) and her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby), a former drug dealer. The neighborhood is plagued with violence thanks in part to the controlling drug lords of the neighborhood the King Lords led by Maverick’s best friend and former partner King (Anthony Mackie). Starr lives what she calls a “double life”, being her normal self at home while presenting herself more professionally at her prep school. One night Starr reconnects with her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) and the two are pulled over by a white police officer. Khalil is shot after the officer mistakes a hair brush for a gun leading to social outcry for justice. As the only witness to the crime Starr is put in a position to testify in hopes that the crime goes to trial turning her life upside down as she learns more about her family, friends and the biased perspective of society. She has to decide if she is willing to put her life and reputation on the line to use her voice and speak out for justice.
So, before I get to far into anything it’s worth mentioning that I know a lot of people loved this movie and the book on which it was based, but I only saw the film. I did not read the book so a lot of what I have to say is based purely on what I saw on screen. The first compliment I can give “The Hate U Give” is that it did strike a chord with me. I left the movie feeling like I had been “woke” as they say or at least enlightened to a struggle that is not my own as a middle-class white male in America. This film is pretentious in its own way which I’ll get to later on, but for now I have to compliment “The Hate U Give” for doing its primary job of leaving an impact on the viewer. Not everyone is going to like this movie because of its sometimes-one-sided social commentary but to its credit “The Hate U Give” is a mostly tasteful project that doesn’t fully demonize the other side of the coin. In fact while much of the story focuses on Starr’s revelations of the atrocities against her race there are some moments where she has to learn that her own tunnel vision isn’t any better especially when people like her white boyfriend try to help her through her struggle and make her understand that just because they’re not black doesn’t mean they can’t possibly comprehend the pain. Starr’s journey is an internal struggle that I can honestly believe a lot of young people are going through right now and despite it’s flaws I found myself fully engrossed and engaged by the story and the plight of its main character.
That’s all due to some very powerful acting by most of the cast. Amandla Stenberg, who has grown up so much since I first saw her as Rue in “The Hunger Games”, is a powerhouse here. She plays Starr perfectly in my opinion giving us a complex young woman dealing with a coming of age moment in her young life where she has to decide what she stands for and whether or not she wants to use her voice to fight the good fight. She deals with so much in this film and we literally see her transform from a simple young woman going with the flow to a voice for the voiceless struggling with a decision whether or not to due the right thing despite the inevitable cost for her personally. Stenberg receives amazing support from the likes of Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby as her on-screen parents who are actually on opposite ends of the activism extremes in the context of the film forcing Starr to try and find a middle ground to live up to their expectations while also doing herself proud. Other standouts for me were Sabrina Carenter, who plays one of Starr’s friends at her prep school and comes to view the shooting incident differently challenging Starr to deal with an alternate opinion, and Common who plays Starr’s uncle, an officer himself, who is faced with some pretty nasty revelations of his own when confronted by his niece. It’s a likable cast of committed people who feel like they understand the weight of the story they are telling.
While it started off a bit slow for me, which again I’ll touch on in a little bit, “The Hate U Give” has a nice flow once things start moving. Everything seems to blend well from scene to scene as we see the story progress and things start to escalate. Like it’s protagonist you can feel the fire burning from the moment the match is lit until the eventual inferno of a climax that really doesn’t hold a whole lot back in terms of the brutality of the situation. It’s an incredibly honest film that makes an honest attempt to try to understand and present all sides of the argument while remaining unapologetic in presenting the fine line of a relevant argument for today’s society. Despite how self-important this movie can feel at times where it does go right is when it decides to feel more like a true conversation or realization than a forced awakening. When you see protesters getting beaten by men in SWAT gear you feel for them but you’re also reminded by those very protesters this is their job regardless of the motivations. At he same time there’s one great exchange between Starr and her uncle where the actions of ANY cop, black, white or otherwise, against people of certain skin colors are challenged and important questions are asked without feeling shoved down the viewers’ throats. “The Hate U Give” works best when it doesn’t try so hard and lets the nuances of the story speak for themselves. Thankfully it does that more often than not which is a compliment to the controlled direction of George Tillman, Jr. a man who is no stranger to directing black-centered movies like “Men of Honor” as well as the biopic “Notorious”.
This controlled approach to the story also bleeds into the script. I already talked about the conversation Starr has with her uncle but she also has similar talks with her friends, her father, her boyfriend and others that help her grow as a person and come to important realizations about not only the world around her but how she wants to act in regards to the unfortunate responsibility thrust upon her. None of this feels forced as the script for me was by far one of the biggest highlights of the film mixing complexity with Young Adult style simplicity to tackle some harsh realities without demonizing those with different opinions. The movie simply says that not everyone is going to agree and sometimes there’s a place for a fight while other times it’s better to walk away. It’s all said through effective dialogue that never sounds cheesy. While there are some odd moments where not everything lines up the script allows the actors to speak like real people and form their own personalities around the dialogue to give it an extra sense of sincerity and conviction. I wanted to know these people. I wanted to see them grow and see them find peace of mind in a harsh reality and I feel like I got just that. This is the primary reason why I felt “The Hate U Give” was so engaging and why it kept me invested in the outcome.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
So contrary to lot of other critics who helped this film earn a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes I did not feel “The Hate U Give” was as pitch perfect as people are giving it credit for. It’s still a VERY good film, but it has its flaws. First off there’s a lot of fat we didn’t really need that adds some extra drama to the narrative, especially the drug cartel backstory involving Anthony Mackie as a kingpin who becomes an antagonist as part of Starr’s predicament. I felt this whole subplot was phoned in and while this could have been in the book I’ll remind you I didn’t read the novel so I’m just going by how it plays out on screen. Drugs are a huge issue and I understand why this little subplot was included because it adds another layer to how the media covers the shooting of Khalil but it’s made such a big part of the plot that it actually undermines the main theme of the film concerning the shooting of an unarmed black teen putting more focus than necessary on the impact of the drug trade and how sometimes members of the black community do more harm than good to their own people thus taking attention away from the real problem ironically the same way the film accuses the media of dodging the issue. It’s a nice small detail to drive home the bias of the media during shooting incidents but taking it as far as they did was distracting and unnecessary to me.
Speaking of distracting and unnecessary I did imply earlier that while The Hate U Give” is not a fully self-important picture there are some scenes that I don’t know if they were in the book but they certainly felt forced in the context of the film. There’s two moments specifically, one where Starr’s conflict with her friend comes to a head and a second in the climax that I can’t describe without spoiling here that for me were huge jumping the shark moments in this film. There are far better ways these kinds of incidents could have been written and presented. Despite a great story and well written script “The Hate U Give” tends to try too hard in a few spots and it’s obvious because the tone of these moments completely contradicts the rest of the film’s more level-headed approach to its morals and message. There are also some moments for Starr personally that I was underwhelmed by, specifically in the third act when she finally has to face the decision of whether or not she’s going to be a voice or hide in the crowd. It’s a big moment that has a lot of buildup and I just feel like it falls flat. Scenes like this keep “The Hate U Give” from being flawless but if you can overlook these rare imperfections the final product is still a very tasteful and brutally honest look at the issues of society today.
Finally, I end with the beginning because this movie took almost the first half hour for me to really get into it. A lot of the beginning is exposition, pop songs and quickly forced character introductions that initially had me worried about the project as a whole. If it was all like this I would have hated this film. The whole beginning of this movie comes off like someone reading me the book and is in odd contrast to the rest of the film that does include narration but only at certain parts and provides a much smoother and well-paced story compared to the rushed setup of the first act. Eventually once we get to the conflict that puts everything in motion the film settles in and finds its footing but when it first started out I was genuinely concerned. I’m glad it gets better, but that whole first segment played out like every other Young Adult novel adaptation I’ve ever seen. It’s a fine example of how a movie’s quality is the sum of it’s parts not just one single act or scene within that experience because that first act feels much more appropriate in hindsight than it did when I was first watching it without seeing the bigger picture.
“The Hate U Give” is far from a bad film. In fact, it’s a VERY good film that has some problems hidden within its great direction and storytelling. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of it all. Some will love this movie just because of the message and others will see it a pretentious mess. Nothing I say here will sway either of those perspectives. I looked at it as an unbiased viewer who didn’t read the book and when setting up a conclusion for this review I had to look at the film as a work of art on its own and not let emotions get the best of me. That said “The Hate U Give” is not flawless. There are problems, but….BUT…overall I have to admit I enjoyed it and found that despite its errors “The Hate U Give” gets it’s point across supported by a great script, excellent acting and a story that, for the most part, builds with the tension to give viewers a tasteful and important movie that blends viewer friendly style with social relevance like few films of the YA genre have ever been able to accomplish so well. It might be imperfect, but it doesn’t take a perfect film to receive a great score from me. It takes a movie made with heart, conviction, style and substance and “The Hate U Give” has all of that. Even at it’s worst this movie is miles ahead of many other movies of its kind and is a project worth checking out despite it’s flaws.