When you hear that a film is being lauded as ‘important,’ it may conjure up images of a saccharine after-school special. Thankfully, “The Hate U Give” avoids falling into that trap. Based on the bestselling book by Angie Thomas, the film’s strength is its focus on a young, black, female lead character. It gives a voice to a segment that’s underrepresented on screen, making this a socially relevant movie that should be seen by everyone.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds: the poorer and mostly black neighborhood where she lives and the rich and mostly white private school she attends. She is lucky to have a strong support system including her dad Maverick (Russell Hornsby), mom Lisa (Regina Hall), and uncle Carlos (Common). The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr is in the passenger seat of the car when a police officer fatally shoots Khalil (Algee Smith), her childhood best friend. As the only witness to the crime, the young girl faces pressures from both sides of the community and must find the courage to stand up for what’s right.
The film brings a new and fresh perspective from the viewpoint of a 16 year old heroine of color who is trying to find her voice and footing in a cruel world. What begins as an almost routine teen love story turns into a racially-tinged tragedy and finally, a call to activism. It’s a smart screenplay (by Audrey Wells) of a story that feels so real it could be based on true events. The story of an unarmed black man mistakenly shot by a white police officer sometimes feels formulaic but its message is an important one. Instead of solely focusing on injustice and anger that’s bubbling over, director George Tillman Jr. instead smartly chooses to concentrate on a girl who grows into an authoritative activist with a powerful voice that’s big enough to change the world.
There are some overly dramatic incidents and plenty of scenes with anger through tears that often undermine the gravity of story and subject matter, but the performances from the cast (including what is likely a career defining turn from Stenberg) provide the heart and soul of the film. The strong characters and meaningful performances create an emotional bond that caused me to care deeply about all of these people. I could feel how important these roles were to these actors and as a result, they became important to me. With this type of impassioned investment, the film becomes an effective expression of how a life can be taken away in an instant. This would make the perfect companion film to “Blindspotting.”
The film feels slightly too long but it never runs out of story. Some things are a little too cut and dried, with big ideas being spelled out in the most basic fashion for the audience. It sometimes feels like Maverick is a pastor rather than a caring dad. He may be a fountain of wisdom but by the end of the film, his lengthy monologues just feel downright preachy.
In the end, “The Hate U Give” is a strong, far-reaching tale of black female empowerment and dignity. Love is bigger than hate, and when society fails to care about others who inhabit our planet, it is a clear-cut sign that we’ve failed at an act of basic humanity.