Race, class, love, death, white privilege, black disadvantage, and the seemingly foregone conclusions that the system is rigged against those at the bottom by those at the top, you can’t fight city hall (but you absolutely must not give in to despair), alongside the kaleidoscopic chaos of just plain being a teenager in 21st century America carom off each other in this wise and bittersweet adaptation of Angie Thomas’ bestselling YA novel.
That’s a whole lot of gospel truth to jam into a single film, but director Tillman Jr. (Notorious, and producer on the underseen Roll Bounce), working with the brilliant young actor Amandla Stenberg (Rue from The Hunger Games), renders the plight of young, urban African-American kids and the (mostly) white “peace officers” who tend to shoot first and ask questions later, in starkly relatable terms. The Hate U Give, whose title is partly adapted from Tupac’s famous “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” ink, is as of-the-moment as social commentary comes. In the chaotic wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, #blacklivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter, and #alllivesmatter, Tillman Jr.’s blistering blood-soaked missive to both the ideal of the revolutionary Black Panther Ten-Point Program and the enormous stakes faced by modern young black kids – not to mention the conundrum of their white, hip-hop-entranced cultural appropriators – finding a passable middle ground between black pride and white snide is as powerful a cultural critique as any other film to come out this year. (And, yes, that includes Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You.)
Stenberg gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Starr Carter, a high schooler who witnesses the senseless murder of her childhood friend Khalil (Smith) by a trigger-happy cop one night. In voiceover, Starr explains how she’s actually bifurcated her social life; Starr Version One attends a moneyed, mostly white school in the good part of town, and all that that implies, while Starr Version Two lives in the hood, surrounded by shell casings, 40-oz. malt liquor bottles, and the ever-constant threat of racial profiling. The chi-chi prep school is part of her mother Lisa’s (Hall) plans to get the family out of the hood for good one day. Her father Maverick (a terrific Hornsby) runs a successful neighborhood grocery, but his past is checkered, having once upon a time run drugs for neighborhood kingpin King (Mackie).
In the wake of the shooting, Starr is torn between testifying before a grand jury as to what really happened that fateful night and realizing that if she does so it will almost certainly impact in a negative way Starr Version One’s relationships with her white, upper-middle-class schoolmates, in particular her boyfriend Chris (Riverdale’s Apa). Because she’s a minor, her name is not mentioned in the police or jury reports, but because this is the age of social media, you can bet the truth will come out.
Screenwriter Audrey Wells adapts Thomas’ YA novel with a sure hand, and the supporting cast – especially Hornsby’s deeply protective and loving father, and Sabrina Carpenter as one of Starr’s white besties who just doesn’t get it – are pitch perfect. The Hate U Give is a devastating triumph and powerful emotional critique of the current racial zeitgeist in America today and deserves to be seen by everyone, no matter which side of the color barrier you’re on.
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