Fifty years from now, when movie fans and critics look back on which films best captured some of today’s most prominent social issues, “The Hate U Give” will undoubtedly top the list. Adapted from the young adult novel of the same name, the film is a poignant examination of race relations and police brutality through the eyes of 16-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), who witnesses her unarmed best friend’s murder at the hands of a police officer.
The film starts with a young Starr (Kai Ture), along with her half brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright), receiving “the talk” from her father. “The talk” is not about sex but about how to survive as a black person in America and what to do when pulled over by the police: hands on the dashboard, no sudden movements.
While at party in in the neighborhood, a teenaged Starr runs into her old childhood friend, Kahlil (Algee Smith) who, after gunshots break up the party, offers her a safe ride home. From here, everything goes downhill. On the way home, the two are pulled over by police and when Kahlil questions why he’s being pulled over, the situation quickly escalates.
The police officer tells Kahlil to step out of the car. Starr relays her father’s advice to him — put your hands on the dashboard, do what the officers say, try to stay alive. Kahlil steps out of the car and, while the officer runs his license, Kahlil decides to reach back into the car to pull out a hairbrush.The officer mistakes this motion for Kahlil drawing a weapon, panics and shoots him three times in the chest — all while Starr watches from the passenger seat with horror. The shooting traumatizes Starr, and she becomes conflicted on whether or not to testify against the officer as the only key witness to her friend’s murder.
As activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae) states, a grand jury almost always indicts the person who is being tried, unless that person is a cop. In this sense, the audience knows that the officer who killed Khalil will never see a trial. In fact, the film never outright reveals the grand jury’s decision; the verdict is only implied near the end, when Starr looks down at her phone with an expression of utter disbelief. Similar foreshadowing is employed when the media portrays Khalil as a drug dealer and the audience knows this fact will be used to justify his murder.
Instead of spelled-out plot points, this film offers something deeper. It’s a period piece, one that accurately reflects the pain and heartache of African American communities when it comes to police brutality and systemic cycles of oppression — including prison and drugs, which trap multiple characters. The film’s depiction of Black Lives Matter protestors clashing with police emulates the Ferguson riots, where the media, protesters and police were all caught in an unforgettable historical moment. The film couldn’t possibly capture the drama and plight of those weeks, but it doesn’t need to. Rather, it ends on a hopeful note, and poses possibilities for change: How can the toxic cycle be broken? How can people learn to love each other? How can people empathize with how black Americans live, and understand that their lives matter?
The only mishap of this film was its casting, which garnered controversy surrounding colorism from the book’s illustrator, Debra Cartwright. Starr, in the book, was described as a dark-skinned black girl, but filmmakers decided to cast Stenberg, a lighter-skinned, biracial actress, for the role. Stenberg was captivating as Starr, and her ability to evoke emotion in painful situations was not only believable, but sometimes terrifyingly real. However, the discrepancy in her appearance lingered throughout the film, because her interactions and experiences would have been different if her skin was darker. Yet, this relatively minor detail does not overshadow the important cultural commentary the film offers.
The title “The Hate U Give” is an acronym for “THUG,” which references “T.H.U.G Life,” a tattoo on activist and rapper Tupac Shakur’s stomach. The idea is that the hate shown to young children can harm them and those around them for life. This notion is evident in the film when Starr’s younger brother Sekani aimed a gun at a gang member who was threatening Starr and her family. As the police arrive, they turn their guns on Sekani. This moment captured the cycle of abuse that was referenced throughout the film, and, by stepping in front of her brother’s gun, Starr boldy demanded that it’s time for the cycle to be broken. Hopefully one day, it will be.