It doesn't take long for The Hate U Give to serve up an unflinching slice of reality. "I was nine years old when I first got the talk," Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) notes, and she's not referring to the birds and the bees. In a flashback, her family sits at their dining table. The topic of conversation: how to behave if they're stopped by the police. Starr's father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is firm with his instructions, telling his three kids to do exactly what they're asked and to always keep their hands in plain sight. With his wife (Regina Hall) by his side, he specifically stresses the importance of remaining calm and polite, even if they're being harassed for no apparent cause. The reason for his stern warning is obvious — by virtue of their skin colour and nothing more, they could find themselves looking down the barrel of a weapon, praying that a cop doesn't pull the trigger.
You've heard of Chekhov's gun, which explains that every element in a story must be strictly necessary. If a writer introduces a loaded firearm, for example, then bullets need to fly before the tale is over. The Hate U Give follows this principle, not only starting with a conversation about police shooting unarmed African-Americans, but using that exact turn of events to kick its narrative into gear. In this case, perhaps the concept should be called Tupac's tattoo, with the rapper's words giving the movie its title, philosophy and dramatic arc. The slain star's 'THUG LIFE' chest ink is almost as famous as his music, and its full meaning dictates and shapes this riveting picture: "the hate u give little infants fucks everybody".
Hailing from a poor black neighbourhood but attending a well-off private school, 16-year-old Starr knows how difficult American life can be. She can't act like herself around her white classmates, who all sling ghetto slang to appear cool. And she can't bring her school persona home, or tell her ex-con dad about her white boyfriend (KJ Apa). Already caught in a constant juggling act, she's forced into a trickier predicament while driving back from a local party with her childhood crush Khalil (Algee Smith). A cop pulls them over, a single gunshot is fired, and Starr is suddenly the lone witness to her friend's tragic death.
Adapted from Angie Thomas' best-selling 2017 novel and inspired by the real-life killings of several black men by US police, The Hate U Give could've approached its story from several positions. It could've kept things personal, following Starr's attempt to balance her conflicting worlds. It could've remained grim, emotional and focused solely on the central fatal shooting. Or, it could've teemed with fury by jumping headfirst into the legal aftermath. Combining all three and more, director George Tillman Jr (The Longest Ride) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (A Dog's Purpose) craft a textured and intelligent movie, which might seem surprising given their last filmmaking credits. Cutting both deeply and sharply, The Hate U Give fleshes out its thorny narrative by embracing the complications of its subject matter. It's never constrained by its YA origins and, if anything, feels more honest, earnest and overt with its statement precisely because it's aimed at teenagers. Succeeding where other message movies have struggled, the end product offers an engaging, impassioned and detailed insight into America today.
Here, nothing is simple. In fact, there's nothing straightforward about any aspect of Starr's existence. How could there be when a victim's criminal past attracts more scrutiny than a murderer's actions, when the #BlackLivesMatter movement sparks violent protests among some and becomes a trendy cause for others, and when gang activity fools the desperate into believing they've scored a better life? Examining a society happy to oppress part of the population, and dissecting the punishing cycle that springs when hostility thrives, The Hate U Give's shades of grey extend to the people in Starr's orbit, too. Her best friend (Sabrina Carpenter) can't see her white privilege, but her black cop uncle (Common) knows how the job can go awry. An activist lawyer (Issa Rae) urges Starr to speak up regardless of the cost, while a local drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) violently tries to reinforce the status quo.
In a perceptive and powerful film comprised of layered components — difficult topics, diverging viewpoints, different angles and diverse tones — the most multifaceted element of all comes courtesy of its star. She might have just seven movies on her resume to date, including The Hunger Games and The Darkest Minds, however Stenberg shines as brightly and fiercely as her character's moniker. Demanding the camera's gaze and rightly adored by the movie's clear-eyed frames, her performance couldn't better capture the everyday toll of these racially divided times. When generation after generation only knows distrust, anger and prejudice, the world proves devastatingly vulnerable, overwhelmingly fractured and unwaveringly determined all at once. Stenberg makes this plain as much as any twist in The Hate U Give, and does so with both heartbreak and hope.