"Violence, brutality, it's the same story but with a different name."
It’s been what one could call a heavily provocative year of filmmaking to say the least, and in some cases the provocative subjects in question which these films are dealing with have been long overdue for an examination. This adaptation of Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel comes in a year where two other films have also dealt with a similar subject (I would specify but in doing so I would risk spoiling those films), so despite how desperately an exploration of that subject is needed the question is what does this conversation do to stand out?
Starr Carter (Amanda Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds; the poor, mostly black neighbourhood where she lives and the wealthy, mostly white prep school that she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is soon shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what's right.
Movies have a unique ability to transport viewers to new places, see the world through a different lens and experience something that they have always been unfamiliar with. ‘The Hate U Give’ achieved this in its opening scene, showing me something that I have personally never been confronted with. The scene involves Maverick Carter, played with empathetic stoicism by Russell Hornsby, instructs his children on how to interact with police officers in such a way that will prevent them being arrested or even killed. It’s such a powerful moment made all the more impactful by the sheer matter of fact way in which the film delivers it. This scene is not stating an opinion or a theory, just a tragic regularity in the lives of certain people.
These family exchanges provide a framework for many of the conversations and themes within ‘The Hate U Give’. They cover a range of topics, most notably the barriers and obstacles facing black Americans on a day to day basis. Once again it is not just the statement within these exchanges that carries weight but the banality of how they are spoken. These inequalities come to feel like a depressing status quo and when these conventions are finally broken it feels all the more monumental.
That kind of quality rests just as much on the strength of the performances as it does the nuances of the screenplay. In the role of Starr Amanda Stenberg shines (I am so sorry) for conveying a sense of conflict and turmoil throughout the movie. Even before the inciting incident Starr is a young woman torn between two very different environments, fitting into both but fearful she actually doesn’t properly belong in either. Stenberg makes these internalised fears evident from the outset and as events around her spiral out of control she combines Starr’s external and immediate worries with her pre-existing ones. But rather than being eternally depressed Stenberg brings out a more rounded persona for the role. In every respect Starr feels like a teenager who struggles but also laughs and loves, which only further pushes the theme of these inequalities affect fully formed human beings on a daily basis.
Structurally the movie does suffer slightly in terms of how it is weighted. Outside of its powerful opening ‘The Hate U Give’ becomes slightly too reserved through its second act. Certain conversations, despite being highly important to the film and its central message, feel somewhat repetitive and poorly paced. Though there are a multitude of powerful moments the connective tissue in between is not nearly as engaging or insightful. In fact the sheer breadth of what film ultimately tries to address risks overshadowing the central message towards the conclusion of the narrative. At 133 minutes I started to feel as if I was watching the extended cut of an already excellent movie. The result, while still very commendable, lacks the tightness to be truly transcendent.
However, as I said there are plenty of impactful scenes which in the moment completely eradicated my worries of pacing and structure. One could criticise it for lacking subtlety but I would counter than issues such as this don’t leave much room for subtlety, it’s a message that deserves to be spoken loudly and clearly. Furthermore I was surprised by the level of visual nuance director George Tillman Jr was able to deliver. Small visual cues that reflect Starr’s own conflict of identity such as the warmly lit glow of her own neighbourhood compared to the more pristine yet colder school halls. Even Starr’s own face seems to be cast in a different light from one location to another, looking paler and washed out, externalising her own need to fit in with her predominantly white classmates.
‘The Hate U Give’ illuminates a subject that is in dire need of a powerfully spoken statement, and the movie delivers on that with confidence and clarity.