Adapted from Angie Thomas’s YA best-seller of the same name, The Hate U Give is a powerful film, with a compelling central performance by Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a sixteen-year-old black girl struggling to fit in. Her mother doesn’t want her to attend the local public school, where the kids from her neighbourhood go to fight and get high. Instead, Starr is sent to a private – and mostly white – establishment, where she has to hide huge swathes of her identity to get along, to be ‘the non-threatening black’ her new friends find palatable.
So far, so standard teen movie, but then Starr’s childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) is killed by a cop who pulls them over as they’re driving home from a party: shot dead for being a little mouthy, for reaching for a hairbrush, for doing these things while black. Starr is the only witness, and she’s afraid. She knows that speaking up will mean media coverage and instant fame, and she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself this way. Partly because of school, where she reveals little of where she lives, but also because of King (Anthony Mackie), the local drug lord, who doesn’t want the authorities to know that Khalil has been dealing drugs for him.
It’s an uncompromising story, with strength in its convictions, using Starr’s confusion to confront this whole big ugly mess. When media pundits dismiss Khalil as a lowlife dealer, Starr demands they stop blaming him for his own death: we already know that he sells drugs because there’s no easy way to make money in their no-hope suburb, and that there’s no universal healthcare to ensure his grandma gets the cancer drugs she needs. When her white friends use the cop’s acquittal as an excuse to walk out of school to protest that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Starr is appalled, not because she doesn’t agree with their sentiment, but because they’re blatant in their insincerity – they want to avoid a test. She doesn’t want them to co-opt his name for their own ends, especially not Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), who’s unequivocal in her belief that the cop was just doing his job.
Okay, so sometimes it’s a little clunky and heavy-handed, more of a message than a story, but it’s a prescient and vital message nonetheless, told with nuance and with heart. We’re offered various points of view: Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common) gives us some insight into why cops might sometimes shoot before they should; her boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), shows us how to be a white ally. It’s a learning curve for me, at least, and I suspect I’m not alone.