Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Written by: Audrey Wells
This being a politically reflective review, in vague ways, this review is more spoiler-based than what I usually write here.
When I first saw the theatrical trailer for The Hate U Give I was led to believe the film would be a fictional recounting of how the Black Lives Matter movement came to be. The trailer depicts the police killing a young black man and a movement, led by someone in a shirt derived from the Black Lives Matter logo. Having seen the film I can confirm that that first impression is largely correct. The nuance comes from the fact that the film is largely told from the perspective of one teenager, Starr (Amanda Stenberg).
In so far as The Hate U Give is “the Black Lives Matter 101 movie,” it is very effective. It opens with a depiction of a young Starr and her siblings getting “the talk” from her father (Russel Hornsby), in which he explains to his children that they will likely be the target of police profiling and how they should respond to it. A few scenes later, the shooting happens. While The Hate U Give is not subtle about its points, it is very well written, and as such, really brings its tragedies to life. In the shooting scene, for instance, the cop is thoroughly menacing, but because he never directly utters a racial slur, viewers are able to hold out hope that he can be talked to reason. He is not, making the scene a vivid demonstration of how racist murder can and does occur in our “post-racial society.”
Through Starr’s eyes, the film goes on to portray the various complications that can stem from such a strategy. In one scene, for instance, Starr is interrogated by a woman-of-color on the police force, whose calm tone briefly provides hope that Starr will finally be heard out by the powers at be. She is not. We are all exposed to Starr’s hesitancy to deal with media, her mother (Regina Hall) and father’s disagreements over striking the balance between protecting family and community identity, and her relationship with her white friends from school.
If The Hate U Give has a problem (and in fairness, I don’t know if this problem is rooted in the screenplay alone, or in the book it is based on), it’s that it is undecided as to whether it simply wants to be “the Black Lives Matter 101 movie,” or whether it wants to be a more complex character study. A recurring character in the movie is Starr’s friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). In early scenes in the movie Hailey occasionally says problematic things, but seems genuinely invested in being Starr’s friend. This sets up an interesting nuanced, tension as the film seems to be depicting two characters who want to be able to get along and communicate but can’t due to their starkly different social contexts. As the film continues, however, Hailey goes on to a spout a number of anti-Black Lives Matter clichés. This changes her role in the film from being a compelling participant in a politically-tinged friendship drama, to being a mere mouthpiece for white racist society.
Hailey is not the only The Hate U Give character whose presence signals confused-vision on the story-telling team’s part. Early in the film we are introduced to a secondary villain, “King” the druglord (Anthony Mackie). We are told that a number of the film’s black male characters have worked for King in the past out of desperation. Starr’s father explains that the cycle of black poverty is maintained due to drugs being brought into black communities. In adding King to the plot, the writers displayed confusion as to whether they were really committed to making a Black Lives Matter movie, or whether they wanted to create a multi-dimensional plot. King’s presence is not a mere subplot in the film, but regularly comes up. At one point, while being interviewed about the shooting she witnessed, Starr is asked about the issue of drugs in her community. She half answers the question before indignantly asking why the reporter cannot discuss the question of racist police brutality without also looking for faults in the black community. This is a great line on Starr’s part, but it also (consciously or not) is just as applicable a critique to the film itself as it is to the interviewer’s question.
In addition to confusion about The Hate U Give‘s raison d’être, I think there are two other explanations for why King factored so heavily into the story. One comes down to the story’s theoretical conception of racial injustice. We live in an age of “identity politics” in which activists like to emphasize that oppressions are specific to particular communities. This idea is addressed in The Hate U Give when Starr counters a painfully-clichéd insistence from her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) that he doesn’t see color. While needless to say, Chris’s statement is reactionary and unhelpful, there are critiques from the left that can be made of rooting one’s politics exclusively in identity. Let’s revisit the moment, for instance, where Starr’s father begins to make what sounds like a radical critique of the war on drugs, but concludes his argument by emphasizing that wealthy people from outside of black communities are responsible for bringing drugs into those communities in the first place. This identity-based observation, reproduces the dominant notion that drugs should be dealt with through the criminal justice system. Starr’s father doesn’t say that black people are unfairly incarcerated for participating in the drug trade: he simply says they are coerced into participation. This way of thinking contrasts the film’s identity politics with the intersectional approach of figures like Angela Davis who see critiquing racism as inseparable from critiquing capitalism and incarceration.
The other reason that The Hate U Give emphasizes King’s villainous presence is that it provides the film’s characters with a villain they can overcome. Police racism is a deeply engrained problem in American society, and as such The Hate U Give’s creators rightly decided they could not depict it as something that could be smashed in a feel good happy ending. King, by contrast, is not a systemic problem (at least not in the film’s logic), but a single, not-so-powerful villain. His ultimate defeat, gives the film a way to have a “happy ending.” Though as Black Lives Matter organizers Melina Abdullah and Patricia Cullors suggest , having such a happy ending perhaps undermines The Hate U Give’s very raison d’être as a “Black Lives Matter” movie.
I realize I’ve written a lot of critical paragraphs here, and I do not want to give the wrong impression. The Hate U Give is an engaging, well-acted work that can play an important role in bringing to life the issues addressed by The Black Lives Matter movement to those who do not get it. It is because of these qualities, however, that it’s worth engaging with the film’s politics on a deeper level, and that’s why the questions come out. Again, I think these problems are tied to one simple but illustrative flaw in the film’s genesis: the question of whether The Hate U Give was going to be a simple “this is what Black Lives Matter” is about story, or whether it was going to be something more three dimensional. And while that indecision unfortunately resulted in some compromised choices that undermined the film’s message and quality, it wasn’t all for the worse. The temptation to make the film’s simple story more complicated led, for instance, to Starr’s Uncle Carlos (Common) making a few appearances in the film. Carlos is a black cop who at first seems committed to changing the system from within, but in one the film’s most memorable scenes, he reveals that the truth of his work isn’t that pretty.
In short, The Hate U Give is a political film. For many viewers it may start conversations they have never properly had before. But viewers who are not entirely new to or at odds with its message, should try to talk about it. Because, while at its surface, The Hate U Give is straightforward in what it teaches, its actually a film rife with layers, layers that should be a source for praise and critique alike.