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If ever a movie resonated with a news image it’s this one, with the extraordinary shot of nurse Ieshia Evans at a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2016, where she faced down three cops in full riot gear while wearing a flimsy frock. She did this with all the floaty calmness of Botticelli’s Venus. The Hate U Give is a fierce, dynamic movie with a terrific performance from Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a high-school student who becomes witness to a callous cop shooting, and her performance seems to be channelling some of the defiance and miraculous strength despite vulnerability in that famous picture.
The movie has been written for the screen by the late Audrey Wells, who died of cancer two weeks ago, adapted by her from the 2017 YA bestseller by Angie Thomas. The director is George Tillman Jr, who made Notorious in 2009, and the title itself is taken from Tupac’s Thuglife, an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. By the end of the movie, Starr suggests a radical change in attitude, and in fact a change to the third word of this title – the “U”.
Starr is effectively living a double life. Her dad is a proud Black Panther who lives in a tough black neighbourhood, but he has now settled down to running a neighbourhood store profitable enough for him to send his daughter to a posh private school, away from bad influences. It is here that Starr has learned how to pass for white culturally: hardworking, nice Starr hangs out with the Insta princesses who appear to accept her with no reservations and she has a really nice white boyfriend. But she is always careful to suppress any threateningly “black” mannerisms, yet when she goes to parties in her own home turf, she has to avoid any “white” phrases.
It is at one of these that she runs into Khalil (Algee Smith), a boy she once knew when they were both kids, playing at Harry Potter – books of which her father semi-seriously disapproves because the Hogwarts house system encourages gang culture. Now Khalil is a tough-looking, handsome young man with expensive clothes, who appears to be still more than a little in love with Starr, and she is charmed by him. But then there are gunshots and they have to escape the party in Khalil’s car – and stroppy, headstrong Khalil is pulled over by a jumpy young cop. It ends in catastrophic violence, and Starr finds that she has to testify under oath in front of a grand jury, meaning that she, Khalil and her whole community will be on trial. The crisis of loyalty means her whole “white/black” identity goes to pieces, along with friendship with people who “don’t see race”.
Interestingly, the phrase #blacklivesmatter is used in this movie by the white characters: the white school students who stage what Starr finds to be a well-meaning but jarringly inauthentic campus protest. This is a fashionable gesture in which they indulge before they realise that Starr, their own fellow student, is in fact involved. Meanwhile, the situation is still more complex: the gangbangers who are acquainted with her father don’t want her to go public with her testimony in case it puts their criminality in the limelight. The film shows that they are themselves policing the situation with maximum brutality.
It is muscular and very watchable film, with a really strong starring performance from Stenberg. Perhaps it is flawed by a certain emotional grandstanding, and the fact that experiences of other black students at her expensive school (including her own brother) are passed over, and Starr is to all intents and purposes utterly alone in how she feels. Yet this may be a just approximation of how this is in real life. The Hate U Give has a fierce storytelling grip.
Source: The Guardian
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