The Hate U Give ★★★★★

I change my phone background to a particular movie's poster every time I see a movie that really floors me. As of yesterday, The Hate U Give has unseated Avengers: Endgame for space on my phone after its nearly 15-month reign.

This is a must-watch movie for anyone who is struggling to make sense of the current protests across America and their fight for people to recognize the injustices facing Black Americans. It’s a film that teaches without being preachy. It moves emotions without feeling manipulative. It tackles difficult questions about race, the role of the police in perpetuating Blacks’ oppression, and white people’s complacency in that oppression, in a thought-provoking manner, that still effectively argues for its own point of view.

Much of this success has to do with how the movie grounds itself within the point of view of Starr Carter (and don’t ask her why there are two “R’s”!), a 17-year old Black girl who attends an elite, nearly all-white private school, who is conscious of the fact that she needs to “act white” at school so that no one treats her like she’s from “the hood.” But, she is from “the hood.” She lives in Garden Heights, a fictional neighborhood of an unnamed American city, which is predominantly Black and run by a local gang, the King Lords. It’s a neighborhood devoid of real opportunity, so much of its youth turn to the gang as the only chance to make something of themselves. It’s a world her father used to be a part of, but after a stint in prison he has sworn off completely, agreeing with Starr’s mother to make sure their children have the opportunities to get out of Garden Heights. But, still, it’s important to Starr’s father, and for Starr as well, to not pretend that their people don’t live in Garden Heights. It’s the kind of complex relationship between white and Black America that isn’t often shown on screen.

And so our protagonist Starr, played incredibly well by Amandla Stenberg, lives something of a double life. The moment she arrives at school, she takes off her hoodie and never uses slang. But back home, none of her white friends are ever getting an invite to hang. She’s spending her weekends at parties in Garden Heights. Starr moves well in both circles, but at the beginning of the film doesn’t fully fit in with either. Her best friend in Garden Heights wants to start a fight with another girl for creeping up on her man and asks for Starr’s help which she feels is all but guaranteed within her understanding of friendship, something echoed by others in Garden Heights. But Starr doesn’t want to jeopardize her standing with her school by getting into a fight and causing too much controversy. Meanwhile, at school, her relationship with a white boy draws disapproving stares from nearly every passerby.

Starr is a wonderful character, and one of the more memorable on-screen characters I have seen in recent memory. She is wise beyond her years, but not incapable of having a good time. And Stenberg does a fantastic job of bringing her to life, granting her an infectious smile and laugh, as well as a righteous anger when faced with the sudden death of her longtime best friend and crush by a police officer in a traffic stop gone wrong. This movie may be fiction, but the movie hardly takes place in a fantasy world.

And it’s that interaction that serves as the film’s catalyst to greatness. Prior to it, it’s an interesting movie in its own right, chronicling a Black girl’s struggles in navigating her two lives. But it quickly transforms into something more engaging. Starr is in the passenger seat when the cop murders her friend Khalil, and is therefore the lone witness to the event. No longer can she afford to sit by idly and keep her two worlds separate. People at school will really know “who she is,” and Starr will have to make the unfair choice of whether to disrupt her comfortable existence in order to bring about justice for her dear friend Khalil.

A word should be said about the magic of Khalil, played by Algee Smith. His time on-screen cannot be more than 10 minutes, but his charisma, and in particular his chemistry with Starr is pitch-perfect, capturing the feeling of two childhood friends realizing there may be something more to their friendship. And this is crucial, because if the scenes and the performances that introduce Khalil weren’t so on-point, the film would lose a little of its power and motivation as it focuses from here on out on achieving his justice.

I want to be clear, though, and say that Khalil deserves justice because he was unjustly murdered, regardless of whether he has charisma or not. What I’m saying is that the film quickly introduces us to Khalil, shows us what kind of person he is and what he means to Starr, allowing us to feel a fraction of Starr’s pain and keep us anchored to her point-of-view even as the movie continues to puts roadblocks in her way.

Many of these roadblocks take the form of people vying to convince Starr to embrace their point of view, and I think it is here that the film rises above others in its attempt to take on issues of race. It doesn’t shy away from opposing arguments; it forces its character into creating a dialogue. And each side gets a fair shake, the movie refusing to just prop up straw men. It helps that it’s a rock solid cast. Common shines as Starr’s uncle who is a police himself and tries to justify from his POV why black men keep getting shot. The local gang kingpin is played intimidatingly by Anthony Mackie who sheds all signs of friendliness from the MCU, and he posits another philosophy: one of forgetting and moving on, that Khalil’s death is unfortunate but it’s bad for business to rock the boat. Starr’s own mother, a fantastic Regina Hall, pushes Starr to think about her future and that the attention the incident would bring her if she speaks up might overwhelm her. And then there’s her father, Maverick “Mav” Carter, played by the imposing gentle giant Russell Hornsby, who encourages Starr to let the light of her truth shine forth.

Yes, the conflict between Starr and the local gang might be a little over-dramatic, and the film’s ending and how it addresses the movie’s titular theme, “T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E.” (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody) might be a little too on-the-nose, but a film this thoughtful and this smart is certainly not bogged down by such little squabbles. For white people in particular, it highlights our own role in perpetuating this cycle. Our general propensity towards defending cops, our inability to see Black people as anything other than “one of us” or “hood,” how our media will spin these stories to highlight the victim’s past misdeeds even though it's unrelated to their present murder, and our love for maintaining the status quo. It’s a tough film to watch, but carried on the back of Stenberg’s incredible performance, it is one that highlights film’s important role as an empathy machine, as Roger Ebert called it. The Hate U Give is one for the ages, and one everyone who has questions about the BLM movement should watch.