The movie The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman Jr., and based on the book written by Angie Thomas, is a stunning tribute to being a black youth in the United States. Amandla Stenberg delivers a vivid performance of the complexities of Starr Carter’s experience: watching her childhood love die at the hands of a white police officer; being from the hood and going to school at an almost all-white private school.
The movie opens at the family dinner table. The father in the story, played by Russell Hornsby, gives his seven and ten year old “the talk” as the baby eats. He tells them, if a cop comes around, or pulls you over, you have to put your hands where they can see them. Don’t move unless they ask you to get your ID, and if so, move very slowly. He warns that movement makes them nervous. He stresses how important it is for the children to learn and know their rights; and the emotional weight of the scene foreshadows the heaviness of the entire movie, the heaviness of the everyday black experience of childhood in America.
After the scene at home, the kids still young, the camera cuts to the family’s mother dropping off all three children at private school, now two young teenagers and a elementary-aged young boy. She reminds her youngest son to be just as amazing at school as he is at home, but reminds him to be more quiet there. Stenberg’s narration of Starr’s experience introduces us to Starr, Version 2, who, she explains, can’t give her peers any reason to call her “ghetto.” Starr Version 2, white boyfriend and all, sticks around during the week through to the weekend. The movie quickly transitions to a party, where Starr is the little sibling who shows up in a sweatshirt.
She runs into her childhood best friend, her first kiss, and they are swept up in their re-encounter. Gunshots are fired at the party, and in the havoc, Starr escapes with her young love, Khalil (played by Algee Smith), catching up with him in the car– only to be pulled over for no reason minutes later. The heartbreak, the suffocating feeling that accompanies this scene, is familiar to those with their own experiences of police brutality. Starr’s father’s words circulated in my head, as Starr pleaded with Khalil to put his hands where the cop can see him, to stand exactly where the cop told him to as he runs up his ID, and Starr and the viewer go through time in slow motion, fearing the outcome of the illegal stop all the way through the scene, until Khalil is shot.
The movie takes the viewer through Starr’s stages of grief, as the cop cuffs her on the ground, while she tries to keep Khalil’s’ eyes on her… but he dies. We watch Starr being questioned about Khalil’s involvement with drugs, and we see the first example of Starr articulating what we feel: why aren’t the detectives asking her what happened that night to Khalil? Why are they looking for details to paint Khalil as a criminal? So they can charge him with his own murder?
Starr wrestles with her identity and grief as the movie develops, deciding her role in the media and the protests following the killing of Khalil. She must confront a racist school friend, the police in armored trucks and riot gear, and the leader of the gang in her community, as she decides how and when to speak.
The movie is an honest portrayal of grief, of police violence and brutality, of a young woman finding her voice amidst the pressures of the life she lives. The discussions among the family throughout the movie remind us of the honor and pain of being black, and of the intentionality with which drugs are delivered straight to the hood; and as Starr’s father points out, he doesn’t know anyone in the hood with a private jet, so how do they get there?
This movie was utterly successful, and a window in to the experience of the racism and violence enacted every day on black families. The Hate U Give is an emotional portrayal of what it means to be a black child in America. We watch Starr find her own voice and decide to speak, declaring by the end of the movie she will no longer self-edit just to fit in; but will be the same Starr every day of the week.