For me to appreciate the race-relations drama “The Hate U Give” is also to acknowledge that I, a 50ish white man, am not the person for whom it was made.
This searing story of an African-American teen, caught between perceptions of her lower-income black neighborhood and her rich white private school, is a righteously angry portrayal of living and dying in the shadow of constant threats from suspicious police and intimidating criminals. It’s the sort of movie that will make some (white) viewers gasp in surprise, while people of color in the theater will see an all-too-familiar reality onscreen and in the shocked reactions.
This split will be evident in the opening scene, when Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby), a former gang member turned straight, gives his small children “the talk.” In this community, “the talk” isn’t about the birds and the bees, but about how to behave when a police officer pulls them over. Stay calm, don’t speak confrontationally, and above all else keep hands on the dashboard where the officer can see them.
Starr Carter (played by Amandla Stenberg), the teen daughter of Mac and Lisa (Regina Hall), knows the lesson well, because she traverses between black and white daily. Starr and her family lives in a lower-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood. Starr makes a daily commute to a private high school that is mostly white, and there her clothes and personality change, to “Starr, version 2.”
The Starr she allows herself to be in school never talks in street lingo, smiles and nods when her white classmates try to talk like hip-hop stars, never giving people a chance to latch onto anything that makes her sound like she’s from the poor side of the city. She hangs out with her friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and has a white boyfriend, Chris (“Riverdale” star K.J. Apa).
One night, back in her neighborhood, she runs into an old crush, Khalil (Algee Smith), at a party. When someone get into a beef and shots are fired, everyone scrambles to get out, and Starr accepts a ride from Khalil. They talk about music, and about Khalil’s shady employment for the neighborhood’s crime lord, King (Anthony Mackie).
Then a cop pulls them over, and forces Khalil to get out of the car. In a moment of misjudgment, Khalil picks up his hairbrush. The (white) cop mistakes the brush for a gun and shoots Khalil, who bleeds to death next to the spot Starr has been forced to sit by the now-panicked policeman.
As the media firestorm over another officer-involved shooting rages in the city, Starr is faced with a dilemma. She’s under pressure to testify to a grand jury against the officer. Meanwhile, King has been not-so-subtly making it clear that he doesn’t want Starr to talk about Khalil at all.
In adapting Angie Thomas’ young-adult novel, screenwriter Audrey Wells (who died earlier this month) and director George Tillman Jr. give every side their moment. Starr hears from a crusading Black Lives Matter lawyer (Issa Rae) about the importance of speaking out against the police. From her policeman uncle Carlos (Common), Starr learns about the million things going through a cop’s mind during a traffic stop. And, at school, she sees in stark relief how racism is sometimes lurking just below a veneer of politeness.
Through it all, Stenberg’s performance as Starr holds the movie together as the factions around her threaten to splinter her world, and with it the fiction Starr has tried to maintain that she can navigate two different worlds. Stenberg (last seen in “The Darkest Minds”) shows the confusion Starr feels trying to satisfy everyone, and the courage when she realizes she must stay true to herself.
With Stenberg’s Starr defiantly at the center, “The Hate U Give” becomes not only one of the most moving stories of coming-of-age in a divided America. It also becomes one of the most necessary movies on race and respect in years, a clear-eyed and strong-voiced call to everyone — even folks outside the demographic like me — that these issues of police-instigated violence and urban unrest will only get worse until we address them.
‘The Hate U Give’
Opens Friday, Oct. 19, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language. Running time: 133 minutes.