Teen-friendly but hard-hitting parable on racism.
The film’s title, taken from the book upon which it is based, comes from 2Pac’s T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E principle: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”. And the rapper was right, hate borrows into children across the world and manifests itself, continuing this endless cycle of discrimination and mistreatment. The hate the world gives leads to atrocities and unspeakable acts of violence and aggression, the hate the Presidency gives normalises such harmful speech to a terrifying extent. Charlottesville, last year, is a perfect example of the result of the hate people are given. But remarkably, George Tillman Jr’s feature isn’t devoid of hope as the world may lead us to feel; there’s a light that radiates from within the tough subject matter, and although some moments are a little on the nose or handled with a softer touch than desired, it’s a powerful movie, especially fit for kids who couldn’t see Spike Lee’s incendiary BlacKkKlansman earlier this year.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a young, African-American girl who lives two lives; one resides in the supposed ghetto utopia with her parents, where dealers led by the nefarious King (Anthony Mackie) roam the streets. The other is a much more refined lifestyle in a mostly white private school, where she socialises with her black-wannabe friends and boyfriend, but feels inclined to hide her roots in fear she’ll be mocked by her peers.
Tillman Jr (whose filmography may not shine entirely but includes the crowd-pleasing Men Of Honour) opens with Starr’s father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) teaching his kids about how to respond in the inevitable event they’re pulled over. “Know your rights, know your worth,” he tells them, but instructing that they should always keep their hands on the dash and in sight. Mihai Mălaimare Jr frames every conversation between the family in the exact same way, deprived of deep focus, very singular on each person’s face and upper body, their reactions and speech and ignoring their surroundings. It’s mostly effective, but also lends scenes an overly samey feel which becomes more noticeable as time marches on.
Hornsby’s monologue comes back to haunt Starr later in life, as she watches her friend die at the hands of a police officer after being shot for no good reason. This sequence is beautifully done, drawing across the officer’s badge number and mannerisms and taking place from Starr’s viewpoint inside the car. You know where you’re heading, but the suspense is rife and when those fatal shots eventually fire, they thunder through you.
The story then steers towards Starr’s internal conflict and the fury growing around her regarding the murder, and whether she should testify as the sole witness in front of a grand jury. Stenberg is on phenomenal form here, a real breakthrough performance in which she shines in every scene, emoting pain and love through impassioned actions. Hornsby is absolutely unreal though, through a large amount of monologuing his message hits home hard and should hopefully transfer onto younger viewers as well; never let anyone stop you using your voice. He commands distinctly and unquestionably with an unwavering wisdom that’s hugely affecting. He also makes an eye-opening comparison between Harry Potter and gang culture that’s likely to put a different light on the series for fans out there.
When you’re dealing with such fantastic, personable performers (apart from Common’s unusually bland turn), you don’t need a score like Dustin O’Halloran’s, a broadly over-powering cacophony that doesn’t service the dramatic tone of many scenes. Competently composed yes, but its pushy nature throughout several sequences is akin to that of a cheesy teen movie, therefore feeling a little amateurish for an otherwise excellent feature. There are a number of smaller plots that don’t necessarily land; Starr’s feud with one of her friends only really pays off towards the end, and her whole relationship with her white boyfriend may capitalise on the Guess Who punchline, but is often an unwelcome distraction from the more compelling subject matter.
The film is clearly aimed at teens, which isn’t to say it’s dumbed down, but there are some clear filmmaking decisions which reinforce the target audience and tropes that work in that landscape; jarring pop music cues, slightly ham-fisted metaphors. There’s also a frustrating treatment of Mackie’s King character, a figure who is introduced in an almost Lee-like portrait of living but is quickly turned into a more typical villain rather than contemplated in a more complex way. But there are some absolutely staggering sequences, and the film’s timely and shocking climax boils with rage, but more importantly, the painful wish for change. If Tillman Jr successfully carries that message, which I think it definitely does, then that’s what really matters.
“Violence, brutality – it’s just a different name.” The Hate U Give‘s familiarity in its themes doesn’t lessen its urgency, however. Powerful, stirring and yes, important; parents should ferry their kids to cinemas for this one.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm