Film / TV

the hate u give honors black rage and vulnerability

October 19, 2018
1.7K Picks

The Hate U Give may not be based on a true story but it doesn’t make the story any less true. An adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel of the same name, the film manages to portray a slice of Black life so vivid and holistic, it’ll leave you an open wound as the credits roll.

Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who hails from the predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood of Garden Heights, while attending the wealthy, predominantly white Williamson prep-school. Starr opens up the movie by giving the audience a peek into the art of code-switching that Black girls have to master in order to fly under the radar. “Williamson Starr” is a demure, non-threatening version of herself that abstains from any “ghetto” slang or behavior.

Starr curates her identity, wearing blackness as a costume for a comforted audience of friends and peers, exhibiting behavior that would raise her above being one of the few Black kids at Williamson. When friends make “fried-chicken” jokes, she avoids a conflict that would shatter the non-threatening facade. Of course, her code-switching works both ways, as she tries to keep “Williamson Starr” out of Garden Heights. It’s a multiple-world-navigating identity formed on the basis of survival, right up until her childhood friend Khalil is gunned down during a routine traffic stop.

For Starr, Khalil represents a past. He’s a connection to a time before senseless gun violence took their friend Natasha, the third member of their “Hood Trio”; before Starrs father Maverick (Russel Hornsby) gave his children “the talk,” and Starr had to split herself in two just to walk through the world with a semblance of security; and before Khalil’s family suffered life’s indignities that forced Khalil to sell drugs just to keep his home afloat. When the two reunite at a party in Garden Heights, their faces shine with the promise and nostalgia of that much simpler time.

As shots break the party up, Khalil takes Starr home in his car, and shares the Tupac wisdom that serves as the film’s running theme: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” It’s acronym — THUG LIFE — was the mantra tattooed on Shakur’s abdomen, a philosophy that spells out how society’s hatefulness transforms Black children into menaces to it. This mantra is most powerfully depicted when Maverick and a local gang leader named King (Anthony Mackie) get into an altercation that results in the youngest Carter child, Sekani, pointing his father’s gun at King, an act that almost gets him killed by two white officers.

In his short time on-screen, Khalil (Algee Smith) is quick to smile with an easy, infectious laugh. Bearing witness to his death not only buries Starr’s past-time, but sets Starr on a path of unraveling that we rarely get to see from Black girls in movies, filled with feelings of guilt and knowledge.

The guilt is accompanied by an anger that Starr never allowed herself to previously engage in, and the film displays Black female rage in a manner that’s rarely explored on-screen. A Black women’s rage is like fire: it can destroy but it can also galvanize. As Starr’s veneer of calm erodes, her anger surfaced to shock her. King, the drug dealer whose gang plagues Garden Heights with violence that helped rob Starr of both friends before she was old enough to vote, plays the “rock” to police brutality’s “hard place.”

“We will never not be armed when the weapon they see is our blackness,” declares activist/attorney April Ofrah (Issa Rae) at Khalil’s funeral, in hopes of rallying crowds to march with a #BlackLivesMatter-style organization, “Just Us For Justice.” Director George Tillman Jr. brings to life an activist movement fueled by people fending off the looming hopelessness of endless injustice. It is the same hopelessness that Maverick’s Carter warded off by conditioning his children to see the power of their names, and by drilling them on the Black Panther’s 10-point program, the de facto Black Bill of Rights.

Starr’s choice to forego the no-snitching code endangers herself and her family, but her decision to become a voice for Khalil leads to the discovery of her own. Staying silent and allowing the passive racism to wash over her finally reveals itself to be a different kind of violence. With the threat of danger looming, news that Starr’s own testimony does not compel an indictment of the officer responsible for Khalil’s death is her proverbial dam breaking. The teenager joins a crowd of protestors facing police with a “Rest In Peace Khalil” t-shirt worn over her school uniform, providing a visual representation of worlds colliding and the consolidation of “two Starrs.”

When Starr takes the microphone from April Ofrah, her first thought is that it is as heavy as a gun, but it is her voice that becomes her weapon of choice. As the voiceover of the film’s penultimate moment posits, had the officer wielded a microphone rather than a gun, perhaps we’d all be living in a different world.

The Hate U Give seamlessly weaves within the affirming and destroying aspects of Blackness and Black life through the lens of a Black girl — lifting the veil of caricature that influences so much mainstream perception of Black people in general, and Black girls specifically. Stenberg’s performance is measured yet powerful with a vulnerability that welcomes the audience into the spectrum of emotions which define Starr’s experience. Her strength is her vulnerability. It is film-making that is beautiful and emotionally raw (without being exploitative), doing justice to a story of injustice.