The Hate U Give is perhaps a good example of what happens when white people shut up, get out of the way, and let people of color tell their own stories. Based on the novel of the same name by a black woman (Angie Thomas), directed by a black man (George Tillman Jr.), and featuring an overwhelmingly black ensemble cast, it has much to relate regarding black experience, and much for non-black people to learn about it.
Now, is any of it particularly new? In a way, yes: the novel is written for a young adult audience, and the film is age-appropriate for adolescents as well. Or, at least, adolescents who must learn hard truths about the world they live in. “We live in a complicated world,” says one character, a black cop who openly admits that he himself is more likely to tell a white suspect to put his hands up before shooting, and more likely to shoot a black suspects.
How polarizing is this movie, I wonder? Perhaps plenty, depending on the people reacting to it. It’s telling the critics are giving it praise — a “must-see” score of 82 at MetaCritic.com — with a decidedly mixed user rating of 5.4. There are plenty of overrated movies, sure, but when the subject matter is race relations, detractors predictably come out of the woodwork for the sole purpose of lowering the averages of viewer ratings. Half the time they’re people who haven’t even bothered to watch the movie or consider what it has to say.
These are no longer the days of Do the Right Thing, however. The Hate U Give isn’t going to be causing any firestorms, no fights breaking out in theatres, arguably largely due to the general desensitization and the commodification of many of the issues here. Are there legitimate reasons to criticize this movie? Sure there are. The aforementioned people of color telling their own stories gets slightly muddled by a white screenwriter, Audrey Wells. That’s not as big a deal with a black director, though, and besides — Wells died of cancer this very month, the day before the movie opened, so there is clearly not much use in pressing this as an issue.
That said, honestly, the dialogue in The Hate U Give can veer into overused platitudes: “It’s the same story, just a different name.” On the other hand, this movie’s target audience is not likely to be old enough to see such statements that way. Maybe our youth actually needs to be hearing these things, and in particular, getting a sense of how the experiences of black families differ from the average white one. It’s great to see the inclusion of a line like “If you don’t see color then you don’t see me,” because for too long white people have insisted on their own moral superiority by claiming not to “see color,” without realizing it has the opposite effect of what they intend.
To the credit of everyone involved, The Hate U Give has far more nuance, and sophistication of storytelling, than most young adult fiction does. One does wonder how many white people will see it just to pat themselves on the back for having done so, otherwise allowing the detractors to continue varying versions of the same cycle the story presents: black people insisting they’re being mistreated (with ample evidence); white people refusing the acknowledge the obvious.
I keep getting back to the target audience, though. If the Parkland shooting survivors have taught us anything this year, it’s that kids as a group have long been vastly underestimated. It’s the grown-ups who can’t be relied on or trusted. Why not tell this story that has been told tragically, over and over, through the eyes of a 16-year old? Specifically, a 16-year-old black girl?
Amandla Stenberg is well cast as that girl, Starr Carter, who is the single witness to the police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith). Her perspective is a unique one, at least among those usually shared in stories like this: she is caught between identities, code switching in her day to day transitions between her home life — itself an unusually positive portrayal of a peaceful, loving, tight-knit family — and her life at a mostly white private school. And when she is witness to the shooting, she must contend with a kind of pressure no 16-year-old should ever be burdened with.
So, if you suspected The Hate U Give (a reference to a Tupac Shakur lyric’s acronym for “thug”) is a bit heavier than you tend to want in your movie-going experience, you’re probably right. This is more of a thinker than entertainment, although it still works as simply compelling storytelling. The editing and the acting could use a little finessing at times, it runs a little long, and there’s a definite element of preaching to the choir. But if anyone wants to ask, “What’s the point, then?” — I would push back against that. There are many points, actually, not least of which is the worthiness of supporting decent films that feature diverse casts, of which this year in particular has yielded several strong examples. It’s heartening to see this happening in Hollywood, where people seem slowly but surely waking up to the idea that specific stories can appeal to nonspecific audiences.
“Appeal” is a sort of tricky descriptor in the case of The Hate U Give. The story is unappealing, but needed. It’s not quite as terribly sad as you might expect, at least. I grabbed a big wad of napkins with the expectation of crying a lot more than I did. (I only needed one of them.) The large cast is certainly appealing. And George Tillman Jr. uses that cast to illustrate unalienable truths about black existence in America, as opposed to weighing us down with the heaviness. There are even several moments of welcome levity. Some moments are contrived and oversimplified, but mostly in ways that frankly matter less to younger audiences, so really, who cares?
I can’t say I found The Hate U Give particularly illuminating, given that I’ve simply been paying attention to the way things work in this country, but that hardly makes it useless. Until something changes, it’s just as important not to forget these things, or that how easy it can be to forget them, when you have the privilege. Granted, anyone who chafes at the mention of “privilege” will just reject this movie outright anyway. There remains a utility in efforts to be mindful of different experiences, among the rest of us.