Optioned for a film almost instantly and banned in Texas, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give set the world on fire like few books do, marrying very real issues of racially-motivated police brutality with a typical YA novel plot of a teenage girl becoming an iconic hero. George Tillman Jr’s film adaptation manages to pull off the same trick, surpassing pretty much every other movie in its genre and overcoming some shaky, clichéd beats with the raw power of its heroine’s journey.
This lead is Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, already a YA movie veteran thanks to Hunger Games and The Darkest Minds), a black 16 year old girl who lives in the African-American neighbourhood of Garden Heights but attends a mainly white private school elsewhere. Early on, Starr’s voiceover neatly explains the difficulty of inhabiting these two worlds and the code-switching that is required to fit in in both. Her Garden Heights friends gently tease her for her white surroundings, while her schoolmates discomfortingly appropriate black language and culture and prattle on about how woke they are without any attempt to actually understand Starr’s other world.
Starr’s worlds collide when she and childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) are pulled over for no reason by a jumpy cop who kills Khalil after mistaking a hairbrush for a gun. Traumatised and enraged, Starr is thrust into the spotlight, revealing just how wide the split between her home and school friends’ lived experiences is. Her endlessly supportive parents Lisa and Maverick (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) just want what’s best for her, but different agendas keep pushing and pulling. A justice advocacy group wants her to speak out publicly against the cop, while local drug lord King (Anthony Mackie) wants to keep things quiet, as the police presence messes with his business.
It’s a star-making turn from Stenberg, powerful and inspiring yet believably vulnerable. As Starr lets her voice be heard ever louder, Stenberg becomes increasingly magnetic and it’s her presence that helps pivotal moments land with the necessary punch. Hornsby is also absolutely terrific as a concerned but proud dad who gets a fair share of The Hate U Give’s better weepy scenes. Some of the supporting cast feel more like ciphers used to make points than real people, but the central characters are compelling enough for this to not overly impact the worldbuilding.
Audrey Wells’s script very much leans into its teen movie status – one massive row ends with ‘and that’s why I unfollowed you’ – and whilst this does lend itself to some cheesiness, it’s far less cringy or out of touch than a lot of films tackling similar subject matter. This grounding in, and taking seriously of, young people’s reality also helps the more dramatic and emotional beats feel very real. Khalil’s shooting itself is gut-wrenching, the cop’s nervousness instantly setting off alarm bells. The tragic outcome becomes inevitable as the situation escalates in a scene that, vitally, doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a tough but necessary watch, and though the rest of the film isn’t quite as raw as this moment, it’s still hugely resonant and important, all the more so for its obvious mass appeal.