Maybe there is a subtle shift going on in Hollywood because, in the past two years, there has been an uptick in films starring Black girls. First there was Everything, Everything in May 2017, then Ava DuVernay’s highly anticipated A Wrinkle in Time back in March. And now there is The Hate U Give.
Adapted from the 2017 Tupac-inspired young adult novel of the same name by Mississippi native Angie Thomas that spent 50 weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, The Hate U Give interestingly follows Starr Carter, played by Amandla Stenberg (who also starred in Everything, Everything), as she navigates the world of her predominantly Black, poor and working-class Garden Heights neighborhood and her predominantly White private schoo,l Williamson. Her two worlds come into serious conflict when she witnesses a White police officer kill her best friend and first crush from childhood, Khalil (played by Algee Smith, whose breakout role was as Ralph Tresvant in the BET blockbuster miniseries The New Edition Story).
In her Garden Heights world, Starr comes from a loving family. There’s her mom, Lisa (Regina Hall); her former gangbanger, ex-convict, grocery store- owner father, Maverick “Mav” Carter (Russell Hornsby); her slightly older half-brother, Seven (Lamar Johnson); and her younger brother, Sekani (TJ Wright). Since they were little, their father Mav has taught them how to handle inevitable police encounters as well as forcing them to commit the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program to memory. Although Lisa is farless politically charged than her husband, the couple never allows their opposing viewpoints to rupture their relationship even when tensions run high when Mav wants Starr to testify to the grand jury about Khalil’s murder and Lisa does not.
At Williamson, where Seven appears to be the only other Black student, Starr lives in a different world. Her two best friends, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and Maya (Megan Lawless), and her boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa, Archie from the CW hit teen show Riverdale), are White but yet have adapted Black pop culture. Chris makes beats and Hailey speaks slang. Starr refused to let Chris into her Garden Heights even as he insists on knowing her better. But when Khalil’s murder becomes a major news headline, Starr can no longer maintain the “twoness” that W.E.B. Du Bois detailed over a century ago in The Souls of Black Folk.
Complicating her life further, King, Garden Heights drug kingpin and leader of the King Lords as well as Seven’s de facto stepfather, played by Anthony Mackie, threatens Starr about testifying because Khalil dealt drugs for him. This puts King and Mav on a collision course.
Director George Tillman Jr. marshals the spirit of his 1997 breakthrough film, Soul Food, to present a strong Black family unit and community even with its many strains. Illustrating the Tupac T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. (The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everybody) philosophy of White supremacy that drives the novel while also shining a spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t easy, but Tillman does an admirable job by staying impressively faithful to the book.
Strong performances, however, sell The Hate U Give most. Stenberg is a stellar leading lady who infuses Starr with a thoughtful vulnerability that completely integrates viewers into her world. Starr is easily the girl in your family, your neighborhood and your school. She is the everyday Black girl in the ‘hood who rarely gets seen. Fresh off Amma Asante’s grueling Nazi romance, When Hands Touch, Stenberg’s performance is even more impressive.
With Russell Hornsby leading the way as Mav, the film has an undeniably strong Black male presence. By being hyperinvolved in his kids’ lives, Mav crushes the many stereotypes surrounding Black fathers, particularly on film. He is strong but also gentle and loving. Mav is a worthy addition to Hornsby’s resume that last included Lyons Maxson in Fences. Lamar Johnson’s Seven is a rare strong big-brother role. It is not often that we see such love and support among teenage siblings of the opposite sex, especially not from those who have different mothers. TJ Wright’s Sekani is also particularly jarring at the end, especially considering that Wright is only 10 years old. Algee Smith strikes the right notes as Khalil, which is why his presence lives on even when he is physically gone. By sparking much-needed dialogue about the role Black cops play in their overall community, Common’s presence as Uncle Carlos is felt despite limited screen time. Through thse characters and the older men in the film, the message is clear that Black men are valuable contributors to their communities across the board.
Issa Rae, as attorney April Ofrah, who represents Khalil’s family, adds the Benjamin Crump element to the story and serves as a conduit for Starr to use her voice, in a riot no less. As Seven’s sister and King’s daughter Kenya, Dominique Fishback isn’t around for long but makes a strong impression. Hall is as steady as always, this time making a particularly notable impact as a loving stepmother to Seven. Though we don’t see or hear much from Seven’s mother, Iesha (Karan Kendrick), by film’s end, there is an important nuance to her character. Also, the interaction between Starr and Hailey takes center stage as it asks how true interracial friendship really looks. In other words, The Hate U Give is heavily layered.
Definitely the Hollywood unicorn of teen films, there is no White savior here. Starr at the center of her world throughout the film without being self-centered, which is extremely refreshing since we almost never hear how the deaths of young Black men affect the young girls in their lives or how losing friends to gun violence at a young age affects girls in the ‘hood. And of course, we’ve yet to see what the Black Lives Matter movement feels and looks like to young Black girls, or Black people, in narrative form on the big screen.
The Hate U Give may not be a perfect film, but it is a very important one that hits hard even for those well past their teens.
Ronda Racha Penrice is an Atlanta-based member of the African American Film Critics Association. Her work on film and TV has appeared in various publications including theGrio, The Root, Upscale, NBC Think, Urban News Service and EBONY. The Chicago native is a former film publicist as well as the author of African American History for Dummies.