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The title of the new Amandla Stenberg movie, “The Hate U Give,” originates from Tupac Shakur’s explanation of THUG LIFE.
“The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everybody,” explains Algee Smith as Khalil in the film. “T-H-U-G L-I-F-E. Meaning, what society gives to us when we little comes back to bite them in the a-- when we grow up and we wild out.”
This line is said just minutes before Khalil, a black male teenager, is pulled over by a white police officer and shot dead in the street. Stenberg plays Starr, his childhood friend who finds herself at a crossroads as the incident’s only witness. As Khalil’s death dominates the national news cycle, Starr is overwrought with confusion as to why she is struggling, for some reason, to speak up about the injustice she saw. It seems like this would be a natural next step, but when flooded with death threats, nightmares and a newfound self-doubt, it’s all much easier said than done.
"The Hate U Give” — which Fox releases in select theaters on Oct. 5 — illustrates what it’s like to come of age while black in America today.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Stenberg said her character is one you don’t see too often in Hollywood.
“It’s rare that you get such a real, authentic and fresh portrayal of blackness, of a young black woman, of what it feels like to navigate different worlds as a contemporary black American, having to code-switch in order to survive in the different environments that you occupy,” she said.
Starr’s character isn’t the only aspect of the movie that makes it stand out.
Hollywood loves an onscreen protest — see “Milk,” “Selma,” “Suffragette,” “Made in Dagenham,” “Medium Cool,” “Malcolm X” and “Norma Rae” to name a few — but these movies are usually based on historical accounts. Yes, they highlight the parallels between the story of then and the reality of now, but still, the audience watches with a particular reassurance that the (most likely happy) ending of this story was solidified decades ago.
“The Hate U Give” is different because its story and our reality are one in the same: Author Angie Thomas wrote the 2017 novel after the shooting of Oscar Grant III in 2009, and headlines of police brutality are all too common. When this movie made its world premiere on Friday night, details were still emerging regarding the murder of Botham Shem Jean, the black man who was shot by a white off-duty cop who wrongfully entered his home.
If the story being told onscreen is still being written in real life, we’re not pacified with the promise of a tidy ending in either.
Like the book, the movie is generally categorized as “young adult” simply because its main characters are teenagers, but its subject matter and applicable takeaways aren’t only for Generation Z. Audrey Wells’s script does not talk down to even the youngest moviegoer. It opens with an example of “The Talk” — the conflict-averse instructions black parents give their kids for when they are, inevitably, pulled over by the police — and continues on to navigate how black youths’ relationship with not only law enforcement but the society at large is different than the young people of any other racial group.
In conversations between Starr and her parents, the dialogue is appropriately unsanitized; when they talk of how prison systems set up black people to fail, for example, the sentiment is simply “this is how the world is.” One speech from her father — in which he tells Starr that she has power and should use it — is sure to elicit applause from audiences.
Directed by George Tillman Jr., who directed “Soul Food” and produced the three films in the “Barbershop” series, “The Hate U Give” balances its hardships with moments of levity and beautiful tributes to black communities.
As Starr, Stenberg impressively charts how her character grows into someone who learns to embrace her racial identity — its complexities, its demands, its power. Leading a strong cast that also includes Regina Hall, Common and Anthony Mackie, Stenberg, who starred in the romantic drama “Everything, Everything” last year, is magnetic in this movie, whether wearing a radiant smile or a harrowing grimace.
Traditionally, the word “activism” brings up images of crowds who march in the streets, carrying large signs and shouting catchy chants. But some of the movie’s most effective examples of activism took place at Starr’s school. At the beginning of “The Hate U Give,” Starr introduces the audience to the two versions of herself: the version who openly loves her family and community, and another version who avoids hooded sweatshirts and hip-hop slang to lay low at her predominantly white private school. All of this code-switching becomes too much of a compromise after Khalil’s death, which her classmates exploit as an excuse to sidestep tests and skip classes.
Soon, Starr finds herself standing up to her best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), a white teen who asserts that the cop had every right to kill Khalil because he was “a threatening black man” (but don’t worry, she’s not racist, she says).
Activism doesn’t necessarily mean participating in rallies or posting diatribes on Facebook; it can be as accessible and as peaceful as speaking up in objection whenever a friend misspeaks. Yes, it’s less confrontational to let that loved one continue on with that offensive chatter and casual use of that racial slur; saying otherwise would just rock the boat or even jeopardize that relationship.
But through this scene, “The Hate U Give” urges that, in these times, such relatively small silence comes at too large a cost. Starr is a reminder that incorporating activism into everyday life is both the right and necessary thing to do.