For many kids, “the talk” is that moment their parents sit them down and explain the birds and the bees. For a young black girl named Starr, “the talk” consists of her father sitting her down and explaining what to do when (not if) a police officer pulls her over in a traffic stop.
With the gravity of a man who’s suffered grave injustices, he instructs Starr to place her hands on the dash and comply with everything the officer tells her to do. For Starr, the talk isn’t about procreation; it’s about survival.
“The Hate U Give,” a new racially charged drama based on Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel of the same name, is at its best in moments like this, when the social and political commentary rises naturally out of the circumstances in which the characters find themselves. And when “The Hate U Give” is good, it’s very good.
Starr is a high school student who exists in two worlds – the poor black community in which she’s grown up with her family intact (the film is also good when it’s subtly shattering stereotypes) and the predominantly white private school she attends during the week.
Starr scrubs herself clean of the “ghetto” before going to school, and while there, shrinks from confrontation to avoid being mislabeled an angry young black girl. She’s even dating a white boy, who thankfully isn’t a sexist or racist jock, but is actually a sweet kid who simply doesn’t have girls figured out yet. Starr breathes easier at home but is still bashful in groups.
At its core, “The Hate U Give” is about Starr finding her voice and using it to fight for what she believes. Of course, she has to figure out what she believes first.
This process is jumpstarted when Starr’s best childhood friend, Khalil, is driving her home from a party. When cops pull them over in a cleverly staged scene in which director George Tillman, Jr., uses the point-of-view of the police car to clue viewers in on what’s happening, Starr responds by following her father’s instructions.
However, Khalil never received the talk, or chooses to ignore it, and as he reaches into his car after being stood outside and grabs his hairbrush, the police officer shoots and kills him.
If “The Hate U Give” existed in a social vacuum, you’d probably write this scene off as manipulative and improbable. Surely a cop wouldn’t pull over a young black man for no good reason and stand him outside his car, and surely the young man wouldn’t reach into his car to retrieve his hairbrush so he could show off to a girl, and surely the cop wouldn’t be so on edge that he’d mistake the brush for a gun and kill the kid. But we all know similar scenarios tragically happen.
This incident establishes “The Hate U Give” as a platform for exploring the fiery nature of race relations in America and the social, cultural and political matches that light that flame.
It’s a lot to ask of one movie, but “The Hate U Give” labors admirably to succeed. The script by Audrey Wells explore nearly every angle of her subject matter, whether its black activism or police brutality, and gives a voice to both sides of every argument.
For example, when Starr expresses outrage over the shooting to her uncle, a police officer, he explains what the incident must have been like from the cop’s point of view.
But even as Starr’s uncle makes a case for the police, he admits that the drama would have played out differently if Khalil had been white. Ultimately, “The Hate U Give” argues that we’re still wrestling to pull the deep roots of racism out of our communities.
Powered by a radiant performance by Amandla Stenberg as Starr, “The Hate U Give” delivers its message through generally earnest and beautifully written dialogue and emotionally wrenching scenes.
Wells fills the mouths of the story’s characters with wise words and lets no stone go unturned. I loved the line, “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me,” which Starr says to her boyfriend, who’s genuinely trying to grasp who she is. (Becoming colorblind is not the solution to racial injustice, the film argues in this scene.)
That said, Wells didn’t know when to stop writing and just let her characters, or the film’s images, talk for themselves. Stenberg narrates incessantly, explaining what we can already see, and Wells crams too many of the book’s poetically profound maxims into the script. It’s all good stuff, but not all of it was necessary for the movie to make a point.
As “The Hate U Give” progresses, more and more scenes falter, with the worst example coming as Starr’s father takes Starr’s older brother back home with him after the family escapes a drive-by shooting. As they posture on the front steps, the dad ceases to be who he’s been up to that point.
And – slight spoiler alert – the big moment when Starr finds her voice is a little underwhelming.
All that said, “The Hate U Give” delivers several potent messages about injustice, bravery, community and race, and for the most part, does so effectively. There are moments of pumped-up drama, especially in the film’s climax, but I left the theater thinking.
To me, “The Hate U Give” is about the importance of continuing to do the right thing even when things go wrong. It might mean something different to you. But one thing should be universally clear: we’ve come a long way and put a lot of injustice behind us, but we still have a long way to go.