New star Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter is the lead in The Hate U Give portraying a 16-year-old African American teenager who witnesses the shooting death of close childhood friend and one-time crush Khalil Harris, shot by a white cop who has pulled their car over, seemingly without cause. (The young actress appears on the front cover of the new “Time” magazine. A star is born.)
The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman, Jr., a Columbia College (Chicago) graduate, comes out immediately after the verdict in the Laquon McDonald shooting by white cop Jason Van Dyke. Videotape showed the black teenager wandering in the street but not apparently an imminent threat to law enforcement, yet he was shot 16 times. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder after a 4-year-long process (and the convicted officer was then moved to Rock Island County Jail). Some say concealing the police video before the Mayoral election is the reason for Rahm Emmanuel’s exit as Mayor of the Windy City.
This small victory for the black community just last week was a significant one. Yet today (Oct. 12th), a Chicago “Tribune” newspaper heading reads “Officer Cleared in Teen’s Slaying,” with the news that Officer Brandon Terrand will not be charged in the 2012 shooting of 15-year-old teenager Dakota Bright, shot in the back of the head during a foot chase.
And so it goes. One step forward; one step back.
The story of young Starr Carter was the plot of the first novel by writer Angie Thomas (look for her in a cameo as the girl giving Starr a shirt to wear at a protest). The novel was adapted for the screen by screenwriter Audrey Wells, age 58, (2012’s “Under the Tuscan Sun”) who died on October 4th before The Hate U Give launched. The film’s reception is bound to be popular approval and acclaim and the script is good.
“The Hate U Give” is a timely engrossing look at the problems of cities like Chicago, where the 4-year trial process of Officer Jason Van Dyke for shooting a teenager 16 times while on duty just ended. But the problem is by no means unique to Chicago. Many parts of the country encounter police brutality and white privilege, two themes this movie tackles. Based on a Tupac Shakur song’s lyrics, the concept of THUG LIFE tells us “The Hate U Give Little Infants F**** Up Everybody.”
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds: the poor, black neighborhood where she lives (Garden Heights, here, with the film shot in Atlanta) and the mostly white school her mother has insisted she and her brother Seven be sent to, in an attempt to break the cycle of violence and allow her children upward mobility. On Fallon’s “Tonight” show, Stenberg characterized the young Starr’s need to role-play as “code switching.” Starr, when surrounded by her white friends, plays the non-confrontational black girl who doesn’t use ghetto slang and hides her true background. But when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend Khalil Harris, she faces pressure from her community to stand up and speak for Khalil, no matter the personal cost or risk.
Since a local drug dealer (well played by Anthony Mackie) had been using Khalil to distribute his product, he is threatening the young girl with consequences if she talks. In return, Starr’s father (equally well-played by Russell “Russ” Hornsby) is determined to protect his family at all costs.
In a Q&A after the film, the director and star and producer discussed The Hate U Give in light of its many themes: coming of age, family, race relations, police brutality, the “no snitching” mentality in the ghetto and white privilege. Tillman said, “I wanted to portray a family that always had a relationship. In most films from 1987 on or so, the families were always portrayed as father absent. I wanted to change those clichés to a family more like the one I grew up in.” The father, Maverick “Mav” Carter, has tattoos; that is often something that often signifies the bad guy, but Maverick has become a good guy and loves his family.”
All of the leads do yeoman’s work in this film, with Amandla Stenberg leading the way as Starr Carter, ably assisted by Regina King as her mother Lisa, Russell Hornsby as her father Maverick, Algee Smith as Khalil, Anthony Mackie as King—the drug lord who Maverick did 2 years in prison for—and rapper Common as police officer Carlos, who is Starr’s uncle. K.J. Apa (of television’s“Riverdale) plays Chris, Starr’s white boyfriend from her Williamson High School.
In a Q&A following the film, the comment was made that moving the opening to Maverick’s instructing his young children how they must behave if pulled over by the police—which did not occur that soon in the novel—was an adaptive touch that strengthened the script. Amandla also commented that “The book was so powerful. She was from Jackson, Mississippi, a nondescript location. We wanted her approval. This is her first book, but it went to #1 and stayed there. We wanted the film to be as accurate as it could be, because the book was so strong.” Amandla even commented that she had “incredible source material. I had an entire diary in the book of Starr’s interior emotions.”
The director (George Tillman, Jr.) made efforts to tell all sides of the story, saying, “There’s always 2 or 3 sides to everything. Everybody has a side. That’s what was in the book, and we really tried to portray that.” Rapper Common, playing Starr’s Uncle Carlos, articulates the difficulty of being a black cop in today’s world. It was the book’s message about police brutality that caused the book to be banned in some schools as “anti-police.” To that, Amandla Stenberg said, “If you think it is anti-police, you have some reflecting to do.”
When asked about the hardest scene, emotionally, to do, the young female lead said that the shooting of Khalil scene was difficult. It stretched over two days and, as she said, “When I drove past the spot where we shot later, I had some really crazy, visceral response. There are real lives and real stories, so we felt we had to commit wholeheartedly”.
The producer on the picture said that the riot scenes were hardest to set up, shooting from 6 at night until 6 in the morning over 5 days.
Asked about the role of filmmakers within the political movement, Tillman said, “It’s important for filmmakers to have a voice. It’s a great time right now. There are more black filmmakers. There are more female filmmakers. I think film is one of the best mediums to get a message out there. It’s very important to have that.”
The weakest link in a strong cast was probably the white boyfriend role played by K.J. Apa. Not only did he seem blah, the scene when he is shown in the midst of a riot of African Americans and nobody clocks him was unbelievable.
A must-see movie.
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Writers: Audrey Wells, based on a first novel by Angie Thomas
Cinematography: Mihai Malamaire, Jr.
Stars: Amandla Stenberg, Russell “Russ” Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Regina King, K.J. Apa, Common, Issa Rae, Algee Smith
- Acting - 9/109/10
- Cinematography - 8/108/10
- Plot/Screenplay - 10/1010/10
- Setting/Theme - 8/108/10
- Buyability - 8/108/10
- Recyclability - 7/107/10