Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: George Tillman Jr
Writers: Audrey Wells (screenplay), Angie Thomas (novel)
Composers: Dustin O’Halloran
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russel Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a film that I was not necessarily interested in seeing, but I was willing to sacrifice up to two hours of my personal time in pursuit of potential clues for a resolution to Infinity War. I do not frequent YouTube for movie trailers, so it is during these rare times when I am physically in the theater that movie distributors have an opportunity to convince me that I should return months down the road. I certainly was not expecting to see a trailer whose subject matter directly acknowledges the topic of police using lethal force against unarmed black (wo)men, especially considering that audiences coming to see the feature film are there for apolitical, fatuous entertainment.
Readers should know that the film The Hate U Give is based upon the 2017 novel of the same name, which is also based upon real-life events—not necessarily “based upon a true story,” yet inspired by many. Motivated by the shooting of Oscar Grant, in 2009 author Angie Thomas drafted a short story for her high school senior project. She suspended the idea because she struggled with adhering to the short part.
After earning a BA in creative writing, Thomas would resume her work on this project in 2015, but by then, the deaths of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, and Sandra Bland had expanded the list (that, for the sake of space here, is not exhaustive) of unarmed black people killed by law enforcement in the United States. Thomas’ project expanded into a 400-plus novel aimed at young adults. Capitalizing on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, 20th Century Fox secured film rights to The Hate U Give before it even went to print! The movie distributor had to wait its turn as thirteen publication houses fought for the rights.
The following is a review of the film unless otherwise noted. Readers should know that they might glean more than they were hoping for with my interventions between the novel and interpretations of the black experience. Opportunities like these to put my degree to use are rare.
Violence/Scary Images: The entire premise of The Hate U Give is that an unarmed black (young) man is lethally shot by a police officer. In a previous scene, a party is dispersed due to gunshots. Offscreen, a youth falls victim to domestic violence; his face sports bruises and lacerations.
Language & Crude Humor: The Hate U Give is rated PG-13 to maximize the number of teens who can see the film. Therefore, there is only one F-bomb, and it is deployed during an explanation of Tupac Shakur’s definition of “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E,” a motif more relevant in the novel than the film. Besides this, s**t is the biggest offender, appearing frequently enough to make me second-guess the movie’s rating. There’s a B-word or two and the Lord’s name is taken in vain at least once. I do not recall any N-words in the film, though one might have slipped by me while a Tupac song plays in the background during some character dialogue. All things considered, the language is far, far worse in the novel.
A white character tells a black character during basketball practice that they should hustle after the ball like it is a piece of fried chicken. Later, when one character points out to another that they are a white boy in the ‘hood, the latter responds that he is “black where it counts.”
Sexual Content: A feature of the novel that I love most is the protagonist’s internal dialogue when she describes how her boyfriend makes her feel. These interludes read like an inside-scoop into the mind of the female sex—”What Women Want” without creepy Mel Gibson. Of course, in a film, internal dialogue is missing. George Tillman fails to find a way to replicate the sensuality in the book intended for a demographic motivated by raging hormones. Thus, there is not only a deficit in conveying the possibility of eros-love, but heavy petting has also been significantly reduced. Despite this, one character expresses anger at her boyfriend for pulling out a condom during an off-screen makeout session a non-verbal prompt for something more.
Spiritual Content: The movie does me a favor by not directly referencing Black Jesus as seen in the book—there is a picture in the background of the Carter household featuring one of the most circulated illustrations of this interpretation. I am pleased that The Hate U Give does retain an explicit prayer scene; the recipient of the prayer is “Lord God.” Lastly, the celebratory song of a black choir transitions a scene to a home-going ceremony (funeral).
The Hate U Give begins with a family having The Talk. Most Americans associate The Talk with a conversation involving birds and bees, or what happens when Billy likes Mary very very much. But these Americans are black; for them, a conversation about sex is common, not requiring as much fanfare. For Black America, The Talk concerns how to respond to the inevitability of being accosted by the police. For the lucky ones who never have to endure this experience, somewhere someone else in their demographic endures twice their share.
In this scene, the patriarch Maverick Carter (Russel Hornsby) explains to his three young children, Starr, Seven, and Sekani that after being pulled over, they should put their hands on the dashboard, make no sudden movements, and speak only when spoken to (my father, a Leo, would add that both hands on the steering wheel will suffice, and turning on the interior lights so that an approaching officer can see inside of the vehicle is prudent). Maverick then begins to teach his children the 10-Point Program of the Black Panther Party.
The film fast forwards to show a teenage Starr (Amandla Stenberg) and Seven (Lamar Johnson) begin their day at Williamson High School. She immediately clues in the audience to the fact that at this predominantly white educational institution, she engages in code-switching, for she does not want anyone to know who the “other” Starr is. The real Starr lives in Garden Heights, a neighborhood rife with poverty, teen pregnancies, and gang activity. Her parents, a convenience store owner and a nurse, work hard to play for private school so that she and her siblings do not have to endure further trauma.
After an introduction to Starr by day, The Hate U Give shifts over to Starr by night. She arrives at a house party where her friend stylish Kendra harangues her for her lack of creativity in her duds. Not wanting to get involved in any school-age pettiness, Starr becomes a wallflower, taking a position where she can see the front door from where her old friend Khalil (Algee Smith) arrives on the scene in slow motion to spotlight his comeliness and charm. They do not get much time to ogle at each other before a fight breaks out followed by gunshots. They flee to his car and drive away.
I came prepared to be disappointed that The Hate U Give as a film could not possibly live up to the novel, but the following scene bothers me more than any other. For almost the entirety of this scene, the camera would show only one character at a time, shifting between them depending on who is speaking. I began to wonder if scheduling somehow prevented Stenberg and Smith from being on set at the same time more than I was concentrating on their conversation. The editing here screams of a reshoot and is distracting.
Though this does not take place in the novel, Starr and Khalil share a kiss in an attempt to generate empathy from the audience before the latter is killed, but it falls flat because viewers already know that Starr’s boyfriend is Chris at Williamson. When Officer 115—as Starr remembers him in disaffection—shoots Khalil because he mistakes a hairbrush for a weapon, I am more focused on whether or not Starr is a cheater than because of that kiss than Khalil’s death. Stenberg’s crying is unconvincing.
With Khalil reaching for a brush in this movie, he provides the officer probable cause. I do not know what Audrey Wells was aiming for with this change. In the novel, Officer 115 tells Khalil to stay put, but he opens the door to the car to ask Starr if she is okay. This is when the officer shoots, claiming that he was reaching for a weapon when in reality, Khalil was shot because of his failure to heed commands. No weapon is found unless his skin counts.
Verily I tell our readers that if God struck humanity down any time we failed to submit to his authority, there would be not one of us left. I am grateful for His grace. Pardon the Jesus juke.
Readers should know that Stenberg came under fire for accepting the role as Starr because the novel version of the character describes herself as medium-brown. (Black) cultural critics likely remember a 2017 interview where Zendaya (Spider-Man Homecoming) discusses with Yara Shahidi (Black-ish, Grown-ish) that she has more opportunities in Hollywood because she is a lighter-skinned black woman. While promoting the advent of The Hate U Give arriving in theaters, Stenberg’s 2018 Variety interview echoes Zendaya’s sentiments, that darker-skinned actresses do not get the same opportunities (in light of these interviews for “fun,” Twitter and Reddit threads popped up challenging participants to name five black actresses under 30).
In this interview, Elizabeth Wagmeister notes that author Angie Thomas had Stenberg in mind when she wrote the novel. As it turns out Stenberg grew up in a low-income black neighborhood in LA but commuted ninety minutes across town to go to school, similar to Starr. The actress is on record for how she learned to embrace her blackness (shout out to Hunger Games “fans” for her racial awakening, who called her the N-word when she played as Rue at the age of twelve) and has gone in hard against cultural appropriation. Therefore, she is not only appropriate but ideal for the role.
Yet despite her “street cred,” I could not tell the difference between Williamson-Starr and Garden Heights-Starr based upon Stenberg’s performance. With the exception of a few lines delivered in slang, the movie Starr (heh heh) seemed perpetually stuck in Williamson mode even while interacting with her father. Where it might have been intentional that I could not detect any difference in Ron Stallworth’s code-switching in BlackKklansman, the narrative thrust of The Hate U Give is contingent on the reality of the main character living in two worlds and her capacity to negotiate between them. Neither her mourning of Khalil nor her inevitable showdown with her white friend Hailey, who does-not-think-she-is-racist-because-she-has-brown-friends is convincing. In fact, the latter scene is changed from a believable, cathartic fist fight in the novel to the movie’s brandishing of a hairbrush as if it were a gun until poor “friend” collapses into a fetal position. Starr simply yelling at her is simply anticlimactic.
Thoroughly disappointing is the outright deletion of one of the novel’s most important characters, a teenager named DeVontae. This criticism can be filed as a subtext under my “two worlds” expectation. I can understand why director George Tillman and screenwriter Audrey Wells decided to downplay the role of gangs in the film, as they are ostensibly viewed as only negative to general audiences, but the narrative trajectory of The Hate U Give depends heavily upon the interlocking nature of these omitted elements for its message to take root. Following the G-Code in years prior, (an NWA quote most unprintable here comes to mind) Maverick goes to jail to protect King Lord leader, King (Anthony Mackie).
Upon his release, he punches his ticket out of The Game. DeVonte, in the novel, seeks Maverick’s protection to find out how he, too, can get out of the gang. This arrangement becomes a major plot device in the novel that the film unsuccessfully compacts far too neatly. Due to all of this trimming, nearly the entire cast of supporting characters which include Chris, Maya, Seven, Kendra, and Lisa Carter (Regina Hall; Starr’s mother) remain woefully underdeveloped.
One aspect I do appreciate about The Hate U Give is how the film spotlights modern black families. The Carters do not illustrate the idyllic, neatly packaged nuclear family. They are representative of how despite the reign of chaos, (black) families manage some semblance of normality. In one scene, Starr confronts her mother, Lisa, asking how she managed to forgive Maverick for his infidelity, resulting in Seven, Starr’s half-brother. Her response is better witnessed than explained. While Maverick is in jail, Lisa’s brother, Carlos (Common), raises Starr in her infancy, which becomes a point of heated contention between them until they realize that their distaste for each other is less effective than their mutual love for their families.
One of the strongest scenes in the film—second only to a twist in the climax—involves Maverick and Starr, where he provides his own interpretation of T.H.U.G L.I.F.E., pointing out that nobody he knows owns a private jet to fly drugs into their communities, but they come from somewhere. Hornsby’s role as Starr’s dad is one of the highlights of the film, delivering an impressive ex-con turned protective father willing to do anything for his family, up to and including placing his unarmed body between upwards of five armed thugs.
I wish I could say the same for other cameos. Fans of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Insecure might have been salivating for Issa Rae’s portrayal of Just Us for Justice activist, April Ofra, but I found her character robotic, and the line delivery too meek for a character who is supposed to be authoritative. In a scene where Starr inquires of Uncle Carlos about proper police procedure when subduing a suspect, the film editing comes into play again, showing Common engaging in a conversation that lasts two minutes without blinking. If I am supposed to believe that Common memorizes his lines rather than delivering them individually between cuts, well, lol.
As we have seen with Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda, and Hidden Figures, it is possible to make a film that does justice to its source material. The Hate U Give registers closer to fiction than it does history, but the liberties it takes with real-life events are not to blame for this movie’s shortcomings. The film arrests its own momentum after the reveal that Officer 115 would not be indicted, and it exchanges hope for a better future by way of upward mobility for something that resembles obstinate tribalism.
I do not think it is fair to expect a 1:1 recreation of a 400-page novel condensed into 134 minutes, but the areas in which this film focuses convey an unintended message: do not make assumptions about all black people because a good family like the Carters could end up in the crossfire. I do not believe that the film redeems Khalil, or adequately addresses why Iesha would stay with a man like King—characters who might appear undesirable on the surface, but the film does not invest time into their complexities. Combined with the uneven elements of the film at the production level, The Hate U Give is a movie with a strong message that preaches to the choir and accomplishes little else.
+The climactic twist!
+ Important message(s)
+ Positive images of black families and men
+ Demonstrates the possibility of triumph against the odds
- Overall mediocre acting
- Complete deletion of DeVontae
- Critical aspects of the novel are missing, reducing the payoff
The Bottom Line
The Hate U Give is a lesson in jumping the gun on film adaptations before book publication. It is the film equivalent of a student submitting an essay while relying upon the SparkNotes version of a text and would have benefited profoundly had the proper creative minds adhered more closely to the source material.