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Non-Review Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is an earnest and sincere attempt to grapple with a very important issue.

The Hate U Give is essentially structured around the aftermath of a police shooting in the United States, following a young woman named Starr who witnesses one of her oldest friends gunned down by a police officer during what should have been a routine traffic stop. What follows forces Starr to reassess everything that she thought she knew about the life that she was living. The Hate U Give puts the audience squarely in Starr’s position as the community around her begins to fracture and fray.

Taking a hands-off approach.

This is a very timely and very relevant movie, particularly in the context of current tensions within the United States. It frequently seems like a lot of the core issues in the United States come down to a complete lack of empathy or understanding, an inability or unwillingness of certain Americans to examine life as lived by people outside their frame of reference; individuals who respond instinctively with fear to social and political movements like “Black Lives Matter”, who refuse to properly consider the context of events like the protests in Ferguson.

The Hate U Give is occasionally a little clumsy in its storytelling, in how it approaches the arguments that it is making. It is a little broad in places, certain elements exaggerated for effect. Nevertheless, The Hate U Give offers an engaging and insightful exploration of a turbulent moment in contemporary American culture.

“All power to all the people.”

Although quite different in terms of content and tone, the structure of The Hate U Give is very similar to that of the young adult narratives that permeate popular culture, the film hitting many of the beats and rhythms of other films in the genre from Love, Simon to The Edge of Seventeen. It is an immersive experience for the audience, one that largely relies on aligning the audience’s perspective with that of the central character. Roger Ebert has described cinema as “an empathy machine”, and that is particularly true with young adult film.

The Hate U Give hinges on allowing the audience into the head of Starr Carter, letting the audience see things through her eyes and share her experiences. The film works very well on that level, fashioning Starr into a compelling and engaging young protagonist. A lot of this is down to a breakout performance from Amandla Stenberg as Starr. Stenberg has considerable experience within the young adult genre; her previous credits include a small but notable role in the original Hunger Games, and lead roles in Everything, Everything and The Darkest Minds.

A Starr is Born.

Stenberg understands the mechanics of a lead role like this, including tricky elements like the obligatory voice-over work that guides the target audience through the kind of inner journey that cannot always be convincingly sold through visual storytelling. Stenberg plays Starr as a smart and canny young woman, who is already somewhat familiar with how the world works before a horrific experience opens her eyes even further. It’s a challenging journey for any actor to play, but Stenberg cleverly insures that Starr starts her journey innocent rather than naive.

Stenberg is ably assisted in bringing Starr to life by an efficient script from Audrey Wells, adapting the book by Angie Thomas. Thomas has experiences that mirror and inform Starr’s arc in The Hate U Give, ensuring an honesty in the story’s portrayal of Starr’s childhood. (Thomas witnessed a shoot-out while growing up, and her mother heard the gunshot that killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers.) Wells is a much more conventional writer, with a filmography that includes a lot of fairly formulaic work, including A Dog’s Purpose, Shall We Dance? and The Game Plan.

Driving the point home.

The result is an interesting fusion of something that feels at once very authentic and lived-in, but also overly earnest in places. The Hate U Give very cannily and very effectively portrays Starr’s code-switching as she moves through various social circles, the way that she changes her mannerisms and language depending on who is around. The opening sequence, in which Starr guides the audience through her life and her school, explaining how she carefully manages her persona around white teenagers to avoid provoking them, is very effective cinema.

However, there are moments in The Hate U Give that tackle important themes like systemic racism or unarticulated prejudice in awkwardly clumsy ways. Starr’s introduction to her world is very insightful, but her interactions with some of her white classmates feel stilted, almost caricatures of obliviousness. “I don’t see colour,” one boasts. When one of Starr’s friends worries about the implications of the investigation into the cop responsible for the shooting, he proclaims, “His life matters too.” Starr’s white boyfriend asserts, “I’ve got colour on the inside, where it counts.”

An Arch(ie)-foe?

This is not to suggest that this level of obliviousness is unlikely or uncommon, particularly among young affluent white teenagers. However, there is a clunkiness to the dialogue, largely down to how many clichés of obliviousness arrive in such rapid succession. Still, these lines tend to set up important responses from Starr, such as her insistance to her boyfriend that, “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.” These exchanges are perhaps the most obvious examples of the awkward or stilted dialogue in the film, but they are not the only examples.

Khalil, Starr’s childhood, friend seems to doom himself at the party where they meet up. When the pair strike up a flirtation, she mentions that she is dating someone else. He responds by reassuring her, “We got time. We got our whole lives.” As tragic as the film’s premise might be, Khalil may has well have announced to his old childhood friend that he was one day away from retirement. The line is clearly meant to deepen the loss that follows. Instead, it feels ill-judged. (It is also a creepy, presumptive thing for a man to say to a woman in a relationship in any circumstance.)

Party to all of this.

Still, overlooking these issue with dialogue, The Hate U Give has a strong story structure, blending of Thomas’ insight with Wells’ understanding of script mechanics. The Hate U Give very thoroughly and very carefully explores the issue at hand, in particular explaining why people like Starr have to engage with protest groups and campaigns in order to make their voices heard, and how deeply ingrained systemic prejudice is within the cultural infrastructure. Protest is almost Starr’s last resort, but over the course of the film it becomes the only one left open to her.

The Hate U Give does benefit from a number of factors around Stenberg. The adult ensemble is great, especially Regina Hall as her mother, Russell Hornsby as her father, and Common as her uncle. George Tillman Jr. does great work as director, not only in managing the ensemble but also in terms of framing the action. This is perhaps most notable during the events that spur the rest of the plot, with Tillman shooting the police stop from the point of view of the squad car, much like a horror movie might slip into the monster’s perspective.

Get Carter.

The Hate U Give is perhaps a little too clumsy in places, particularly in its finer details. However, it is also a very earnest and very timely piece of cinema, one aimed at a young audience that might yet learn from the mistakes of their elders.

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