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The Hate U Give

Fair warning, folks: This will not be easy. It’s not an easy film to watch, it’s not an easy review to write, and it won’t be easy to read. This is unavoidable when we’re talking about a movie that deals with such a deeply unpleasant yet vitally important subject. People are literally dying over this, after all, and it’s a positive trend that cinema is treating police brutality and systemic racism with increasing profundity. Yes, it means that the movies are getting darker and more uncomfortable, but they could never be more uncomfortable than our current reality. (Again, real people are literally dying.)

So if you don’t want to read any further, I’ll spare you the details and say this: Go see The Hate U Give. See it now and bring your friends. This is easily the most empowering, enlightening, intelligent, insightful, heartbreaking, gut-punching movie you could hope to see in theaters right now.

Our protagonist for today is Starr Carter, played by Amandla Stenberg. At age nine, she and her siblings got The Talk from their father, detailing what they need to do if they hope to survive getting randomly pulled over by the cops. At age ten, her best friend was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Ever since, she’s been going to an affluent private school that offers protection and a first-class education in return for the illusion of a more diverse student body.

As a direct result, Starr has spent over half her life living in two separate worlds. At school, she’s the sweet and harmless black girl who stays quiet, keeps her head down, and doesn’t bother anyone with her problems among her poor black neighbors. At home, she’s another black girl among so many others in the ghetto, shedding the stench of rich white folk so she can blend in with her people. She has two separate sets of friends, and never the twain shall meet.

The plot begins in earnest with Starr’s childhood friend (Khalil, played by Algee Smith). Long story short, Khalil is driving Starr home when the two get pulled over by a white cop. Khalil is shot dead while Starr is in the passenger seat, making her the only known witness of the event. So now she has to decide whether to testify before a grand jury, putting herself on a national stage and in multiple crosshairs.

Starr has a bunch of siblings and neighbors in the supporting cast, all of whom are related to her and each other through various avenues of blood and marriage. I won’t recap them all, as it’s far too complicated to be worthwhile here, and the movie does a far more efficient job of keeping it all straight than I ever could. So let’s keep our focus on a few specific highlights.

On the one hand is Starr’s father (Maverick Carter, played by Russell Hornsby), an ex-con now running a legitimate corner store. This is the man who raised his kids to be proud of who they are and where they call home, while also teaching them the skills and knowledge to survive. He’s a proud man, often to a fault, and he’s pledged his life toward giving his kids the strength they need to overcome anything.

On the other hand is Starr’s mother (Lisa Carter, played by Regina Hall). This is a woman whose only concern is the safety of her family. A woman whose solution to mortal danger is packing up and leaving to a safer city so her kids can focus on their studies and working toward a better life. That’s not to say she’s a coward, however — she’s got more than enough backbone to stand up to her husband, that’s clear enough. The two love each other dearly, even though they can argue with each other all day if need be, and it’s incredible to see the movie strike that balance so well. But I digress.

What’s important is that this is a universal problem. Lisa can pick up her family and move anywhere, but they’ll still be a black family and they’ll still have to deal with white cops. There’s no running from this.

Then we have the local crime lord (King, played by Anthony Mackie), who used to be Maverick’s boss and employed Khalil right up until the shooting. Yes, the white cop shot a young man who happened to be a drug dealer, and of course that comes up as a possible justification for the shooting. King naturally objects to the possibility of his name coming up in connection with Khalil and so encourages Starr to keep her mouth shut.

Incidentally, Mackie turns in what’s probably the weakest performance in the movie. Not that he’s bad by any stretch — he’s more than charismatic enough for the part — but he’s so much better than this and he deserved a lot more to work with. But again, I digress.

On the other end of the spectrum is Lisa’s brother (Uncle Carlos, played by Common), a black man in law enforcement. Yes, the key witness in a police brutality case is the niece of a cop and you can already see how this gets even more complicated. Yet because Carlos is a black man and a loving uncle to Starr, he’s able to present a cop’s perspective in a language that she and the movie speaks. He’s trying to maintain the status quo, insisting that Starr trust in the system, stuck trying to defend and affect a system that has already resulted in so many unarmed black citizens dead.

Elsewhere, Starr still has to go to school with a bunch of white kids who could never understand the kind of stress that she’s going through and would probably ostracize her as a Militant Black if she talked about it to any degree. This dynamic is most plainly obvious in the character of Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), one of Starr’s friends.

Hailey hates violence against black people, but doesn’t want to talk about it or see pictures of it. She will only stand against racism so long as it’s both comfortable and convenient for her. She constantly appropriates black culture and makes insensitive jokes, thinking she can get away with it because she’s friends with a black person. She’s quick to remind everyone that #NotAllCops are racist, #AllLivesMatter, and that Khalil was a drug dealer who probably would have gotten himself killed anyway. But of course not all black people are drug dealers — Hailey knows plenty of good, clean, non-threatening black people like Starr and… You get the idea.

While we do still have card-carrying, cross-burning, N-word-spewing racists in the here and now, the filmmakers were smart enough not to focus on that overly vocal minority. Rather, the movie is smart enough to focus on the white people who mistakently think they’re not racists just because they’re not racist to the standards of the KKK. This movie is bold enough to call out the white people who don’t even know how racist they are because their discrimination is more subtle. It’s all about the logical gymnastics that indirectly justify keeping the status quo in place, and therefore accomplish precisely nothing to help the black people they claim to care so much about.

(Side note: Maybe I just didn’t catch it, but I’m pretty sure nobody ever actually says the N-word in this picture. Even between black people, I don’t think it ever comes up.)

Then we have Starr’s boyfriend (Chris, played by KJ Apa). Yes, Starr has a white boyfriend, and she can’t tell him anything about what’s going on back home because she’s that set on keeping her two worlds apart. He only ever sees a facade while she holds back who she really is, so of course their relationship is on the rocks. What’s more, Chris himself is not immune to the casual racism he’s been steeped in from birth (“I don’t see race!”), but at least he shows a willingness to learn and be a better ally. And maybe he’d have an easier time of that if his girlfriend would do more to open up. Just saying.

And of course the movie goes into the cultural perceptions regarding a biracial relationship… from Starr’s perspective. We see the side-eyed glares she gets from rich white girls who won’t say anything to her face and we see how upset Maverick is about his daughter dating a white boy. But we never see the other side of the coin. Surely Chris has gotten his fair share of ridicule and scorn over dating a black girl, unless maybe all of his buddies see Starr as a trophy of some kind. I get that this is Starr’s story and her voice has to take priority (especially since young black girls don’t typically have much of a voice in cinema), but I’m sure Chris would have had some valuable insights of his own on the subject and passing them over was a sadly missed opportunity.

That said, I hope it’s clear by now just how comprehensive this movie is. There’s a wide variety of authentic and compelling characters representing a tremendous range of perspectives about this issue. While the plot itself is fictional, there’s never the least bit of doubt that the story is absolutely true. Perhaps more importantly, it humanizes the story in such a way that it asks an important question: What if it was you? What would you do if you were in the passenger seat of that car? Hell, what would you do if you were the driver? What if you were the cop? What if it was a friend or a loved one in a position like this? What if you were passing by and you saw this happening?

You think it couldn’t happen to you, or anyone you’re close to? If something isn’t done to stop this and the scenario keeps on playing out as often as it has, it very well could.

This movie is all about a system that’s very good at perpetuating itself. People of color are oppressed to the point where they have no other option to make money except the drug trade. The Powers That Be want the cheap labor that comes with imprisoned convicts, and the crime lords want the billions of dollars that come with drug sales, and thus resistance is quashed from both sides. But resistance is always there in some way, nonetheless, and only so many dead bodies can pile up before a problem becomes an undeniable trend.

This results in escalation until the oppressed and oppressors are deathly afraid of each other. Everyone wants to stop the cycle of violence, and nobody wants to be the first one to stand up and do anything about it. To be clear, it’s not that Starr ever wanted to be the latest figurehead of this particular movement. She doesn’t want to put her face on the news and she doesn’t want to put herself or her family in danger. She doesn’t want to speak in front of massive crowds, and she doesn’t know what she’d say.

But she has to step up. It takes incredible bravery and sacrifice in return for minimal impact if any, but she has to step up because she’s the only one who can. And anyway, doing anything is still better than doing nothing, and doing nothing is unacceptable. Sure, Starr may only be one lone high schooler, but so was Khalil and look what a difference he made in death. Even if she’s only one voice looking for someone who’s willing to listen and act, that’s basically what any protest is — it’s only a matter of degree.

Speaking of which, you know the common complaint about how protests don’t do anything but cause a major inconvenience in holding up traffic? Well, the movie is so consistently even-handed that we see the main characters themselves held up in traffic as a crucial point in the climax, stopped by a protest. That was a wickedly clever touch.

Back to the point, the filmmakers were humble enough not to say that they had any kind of solution. Over the past ten years, filmmakers have finally learned that racism has to be presented not as the work or the mindset of a single comically villainous asshole. Racism is not about the individual, it’s about the status quo made so all-encompassing, deeply entrenched, and borderline impossible to get rid of because too many people benefit directly from it. The movie was built from the ground up around that concept, and the filmmakers are humble enough not to come out and say that they know how to fix institutional racism. In the end, the victory comes from finding the courage to do something — literally anything — that defies the cycle of violence, even at the potential cost of one’s own life and/or liberty. The victory comes from finding one’s voice and finding someone who will listen. Hell, in such a context as this one, even mere survival is a kind of victory.

Last but not least, we have the theme of “just be yourself”. But if anything about your identity has been weaponized and twisted into a reason for others to be afraid of you, such a trite and threadbare theme is suddenly a great deal more important and provocative.

Major kudos are due to everyone in the cast. The absolute best performances are insuperable, even the worst of the bunch are solid, and there’s phenomenal chemistry between every configuration of these actors. Russell Hornsby’s performance is pure gold, Issa Rae gives a brief but fiery performance, Common turns in his best acting work in years, and Regina Hall masterfully dances across quite a few tightropes. Even Sabrina Carpenter and KJ Apa — given what may be the two most thankless roles in the entire film — acquitted themselves admirably.

As for Amandla Stenberg… brava. She’s gorgeous, she can hold the screen for days, and she’s got range to the rafters. I can’t even begin to catalogue all the ways Stenberg was put through her paces in the course of this film, and absolutely everything thrown at her got hit clear out of the park. She is indubitably a contender for Best Actress — tell me higher praise and I’ll use it.

If The Hate U Give stumbles, it’s only because the filmmakers tried their damnedest to give in-depth, thoughtful, and authentic examinations of institutional racism from every conceivable angle, only to find that nobody could possibly fit all of that into 130 minutes. As it is, the movie is superbly crafted, masterfully acted, and elegantly balanced. Every effort was made to craft authentic characters exploring this vital subject in a sincere and thought-provoking way, portraying modern horrors in an unflinching manner while leaving plenty of room for hope and faith in our ability to improve. The filmmakers clearly put their passions toward building something that would humanize black people, winning over hearts and minds so we could all come together and be a more inclusive, accepting culture. If this movie won’t do the job, I can’t imagine a film that possibly could.

This movie absolutely demands to be seen, and you’ll be doing yourself a favor to oblige. It’s a bitter medicine, delivered with just enough sugar. If you haven’t already, see it now.

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