The Hate U Give drew tears out of me three times. It also startled me into flailing my hands in the air and jumping around in my seat twice. I don’t think I’ve ever hyperventilated, but the closest I may have come as an adult was during a scene in The Hate U Give when tears were spilling down my face because I was positive the movie was about to portray something horrifying.
And the reason I was breathing heavily through my mouth, tears gushing forth, feeling hot behind my ears (a sensation I can’t say I’ve ever felt before), was that the movie effectively convinces you that what may happen next is practically guaranteed to. It does this effectively because it is an honest reflection of reality. In reality, the thing I was afraid of seeing on-screen happens. It famously happened here in Ohio a few years ago. It will happen again. Maybe it happened somewhere in America today. I haven’t looked in the news.
I first saw the trailer for The Hate U Give months ago. I think I was seeing Sorry To Bother You (which was excellent by the way), which was what I’ll refer to as an African American film. Its director, its stars, and much of its messaging, were African American. So, too, were the trailers. The other ones played were for Blindspotting, White Boy Rick, and Night School. I wanted to see the first and third on that list, and I felt like I’d been waiting to see Night School for an entire year. When it finally came out, I hardly cared anymore, but that’s neither here, nor there.
The trailer for The Hate U Give said, “this is important. This is not just pretending to be important. This. Is. Important. And it is honest.”
I heard rumblings between then and now that the film was adapted from a book of the same name, which is being read in schools across the country. And to that, I say, “good.”
But what does it matter what I say? I’ve been trying to work through my feelings about that since I stepped into the theater this evening. And it was the cheapo theater, by the by, because this movie didn’t do well financially, and is already showing for $3 at the second-run multiplex. On a 23 million dollar budget, this film made 29, and that’s an absolute crime.
I digress, though. As I say, I sat down into my uncomfortable cheapo theater seat and became immediately aware of my position as a privileged white, male suburbanite and genuinely ignorant and pretentious movie snob wannabe. I had neither the cultural nor film bona fides to criticize this movie. But I had paid my $3 and knew it was going to happen.
It opens up, and after an impactful scene of a black father, who appears to have done time, giving his two black children “the talk” about how to behave at a traffic stop (hands on the dash, don’t argue with the officer, say “yes sir”, etc.). After that, we move to the present and for a while, things are a little hokey. The protagonist, Starr, narrates us through her code-switching double life, living in the ‘hood and attending school at a prestigious, mostly-white academy. Her parents, she informs us, put her brother and her there to try and keep them safe from the reality of her home neighborhood’s public school. Her stepmother is petitioning her father to move out and away from the ghetto, while he wants to stay and contribute to the growing and strengthening of the character of their home.
It’s a compelling setup, but it’s not the meat of the plot, and we know that from the marketing. So it feels a little stiff, a little formal as the opening minutes tick by. I wonder about some of the lines being delivered by this picturesque family. I wonder about the way they’re delivered. Is this a little over-the-top? A little prime-time-sitcom-esque? If it is, is it reflective of African American film-making? Of course not, I remind myself, there are about a dozen layers of bias to such an assumption, and it would be exhausting to list them all here. I assure myself that I’m either reading too much into it, or that if I’m noticing little quibbles, they are only that, and most people wouldn’t bother even looking for such things.
I try to enjoy the movie and push out of my head all the critical thoughts I’m having because, again, I know I’m in no position to nit-pick. I’m some white asshole who didn’t even see this in a first-run theater and support it with a full ticket price.
It doesn’t take long to notice that the lead actress, Amandla Stenberg has more skill in her than I first thought. I think I recognize her. Was she in that movie about teenagers having powers? Yeah, I think she was the little girl in The Hunger Games. How long ago was that? You know what? I saw her in some romance called Everything, Everything when they were playing it in at work. Oh, I’m getting side-tracked.
But it’s worth noting. The little girl from The Hunger Games has been putting in her work, getting her practice, even if it was in films like The Darkest Minds where no one was looking. And let’s be honest, that film looked like garbage. But she’s got something to show for it. What I come to find out again and again over the course of the film is that she is a fantastic actor. The word that kept springing up in my mind was “force”. She is a force.
The brilliance in her performance here, and I suppose due credit goes to director George Tillman Jr., is that it is paced, balanced, and allowed to span a massive range of emotion. We see her playing both the role of prep school girl of color, carefully watching her every own word and move to cater to the white people around her, even as it means suppressing her responses to their appropriation of her culture. We see her cutting loose–but not too loose–at a party with people in the ‘hood. We see her in terror, and in grief. We see her in trauma, and in quiet suffering. In fear, indecision, relief, rage, panic, and righteous, passionate indignation.
She plays it all in a way that I can only describe as stunning. Stenberg stuns with her performance.
Russell Hornsby, who you may recall from Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences, also deserves a shout-out for his portrayal of Starr’s (Stenberg’s) father, Maverick Carter. He is an imposing, world-weary, yet defiant and strong father. A former victim of the ghetto and courageous defender of it. Hornsby is believable throughout the entire film. He makes you believe in Maverick Carter’s bravery.
The other actors, from the lesser roles to the more significant, are all pretty great too. Regina Hall plays the loving stepmother perfectly, and I loved seeing Anthony Mackie play something besides a comedic or superhero role. I’m sure he does all the time, but I’ve never seen it, so that was a treat. The child actors are also impressive as well.
Also, the white people were fine.
And I’m not being flippant about that. They’re an afterthought here because I really thought of them last. This is not a movie for white people, although it ought to be mandatory viewing. This is one of those films that flips the typical Hollywood structure and uses white people to fill the roles of lesser characters, and I am always fascinated to feel, even in this touristic way, what that is like. Other, similar example that comes to mind is what a cow men had when Wonder Woman and Black Panther came out. In both, white men were either lackey side characters, villains, or disposable.
There is more to this film than the trailer lets on, and several times throughout, I felt that the gang violence subplot wasn’t a great asset. But, again, I’m a white suburbanite. I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to live in a neighborhood where the threat of gang authority looms large. What does my opinion matter if I don’t feel like every Anthony Mackie component is integral? Doubtless there are people from the ‘hood in the audience who can appreciate that character and relate it to their lives. Not everything in this movie is for me.
And on the subject of its white characters, it seems to have two main types to portray: MLK’s White Moderate, in the form of Starr’s shitty classmate friend, and the White Ally who, in this case, isn’t especially woke but seems to want to work on it.
I definitely have feelings about these, and they’re complicated, and I think that’s okay because so are the things being portrayed here.
The shitty White Moderate friend is a Blue Lives Matter sort of too-subtle-a-racist-to-realize-she-is-a-racist type. But there is also a scene in the film where a black police officer gives the police officer’s point of view on the danger of a traffic stop and the bias inherent in pulling over a well-to-do white man versus a black man in the ‘hood. He goes down an exhaustive list of variables and pieces of protocol used in the decision-making that leads up to an accidental murder of an unarmed man, and you drift in and out of appreciating where he’s coming from. That’s what makes the white friend who is also a piece of shit into a character with some nuance. She’s not a cartoon villain. The view she’s expressing, while wrong, is one that is very easy to hold.
The White Ally comes in the form of Starr’s boyfriend, and I worried here and there about the direction this character might go. Initially, I expected him to be what the best friend character turned out to: a fake fan of black people who isn’t willing to learn about or appreciate the black experience and probably leaves Starr somewhere down the line. Later, I was worried that he would turn out to be some lesser form of the White Savior. And the white assimilationist inside of me who knows that the end goal, on paper, if there were no such things as history or context, would be that we’re all completely equal in all ways–the same way “I don’t see color” people pretend we already are or can be–wanted him not to turn out to be a flake or a villain.
I won’t spoil what goes on with his character, suffice it to say that while I didn’t find the end result especially satisfying from a narrative or political angle, I did appreciate it from a humanist and brow-wiping relief sort of angle.
This film is effective in everything it sets out to do. It is moving, heartbreaking, inspiring, and even daring–specifically, daring you, the audience member, to fucking do something. Anything. But not to conflate slacktivism with activism. Rather, to be willing to risk life and limb for what is right, just the way black people are forced to do every day simply for their own existence in this country.
As for the film making, since I must discuss it, it is above-average. The shots are sometimes more than competent, with some nice creativity. But it doesn’t have a distinct visual style. And that’s fine. A film this loaded with heavy themes doesn’t need to strike a visual pose. It would only distract from itself.
But one thing I really did like, and I noticed about a half-hour in, relates to the cinematography. I think some of it was done in post, but much of it was to do with the sets, which is very impressive: whenever something is happening in the White Man’s world, things are plain, largely white, and the colors are very muted. It’s as if Starr and that slice of her world are desaturated. When she is in the ‘hood, or near to it either geographically or thematically, the colors saturate and the palette of the movie becomes very fleshy and robust. I loved this choice. It is subtle, yet effective.
I’ll say again that it’s a crime this film didn’t perform better at the box office. I don’t watch TV and I pay for ad-free versions of all my internet services like YouTube, Hulu and Spotify so I don’t know how heavily this film was marketed. I usually realize a movie has released when I see YMS or Chris Stuckmann review it, but neither one of them have turned their eye toward it and I don’t know why. Double Toasted did a review, but YouTube’s algorithm has sorted them out of my subscription feed.
Given that it’s being read in high schools, I simply assumed it would be a runaway success and household talking point.
But it doesn’t seem to have been.
It’s a crime.
It’s not an artsy movie. But it is art. It is a wonderfully refined encapsulation of a hugely important message for our times. It is a bellowing sob and a rallying cry that should speak to anyone with a heartbeat and a decent moral compass. It is a well-intentioned and wholesome gift to an American public that seems in 2018 to often be morally bankrupt. And, unsurprisingly, America got word of what was in the gift and decided not to show up and open it.
But you should. I encourage you to accept this gift. And show up at the next rally in your town square for BLM. Don’t mark it as “Interested” on Facebook and then sleep in late that Saturday. Don’t just tell your friends, “oh, I almost went to that protest, I really wanted to be there, but I had a few too many the night before and I was just dead Saturday.” Go to the next protest at the site of the murder of the next unarmed black person who dies in your town. Cry if you need to at the certainty that there will be a next one.
The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody