It's overwhelming to think about how, even five years ago, national protests over police shootings were uncommon. Now, there are a few protests every year, like the ones earlier this year in Pittsburgh over the shooting of Antwon Rose. This organizing, mostly done by young activists, ignited other movements, like the work done by the survivors of the Parkland shooting. Teenagers today are creating the blueprint on how to act when their personal tragedy becomes a political firestorm.
The Hate U Give, a film adaptation of Angie Thomas' young adult novel of the same name, directed by George Tillman Jr., centers around Starr, a 16-year-old girl who finds herself thrown into activism after witnessing an incident of police brutality.
Starr (Amandla Stenberg) lives in Garden Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood, plagued by crime from the local drug lords. Along with her siblings, she attends Williamson, a wealthy and mostly white private school. Starr struggles with separating her identities, forcing herself to act less black at school and more black at home. One night, after leaving a party, Starr and her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) get pulled over by the police. When a cop mistakes Khalil's hairbrush for a gun, he shoots and kills Khalil. In the days and weeks following, protests break out over the unjust killing, and Starr must wrestle with her trauma, her identity, and whether or not to join the activism.
Starr is guarded by her protective parents, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), and Lisa (Regina Hall), who are intertwined with crime in a different way. Maverick served time for dealing drugs under King (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood's menacing gang leader and stepfather of Starr's older brother. Meanwhile, Lisa's brother Carlos (Common) is a cop who drives a Bentley and lives in a nice house. Khalil was also dealing for King, and the whole web puts Starr at the center, afraid to speak about Khalil's life and death.
The story draws from memorable real-life incidents, like police in riot gear standing in front of peaceful protesters, or a protester throwing a gas canister back at the police. The moment when the officer fires his gun at Khalil and Starr weeps over her friend's bleeding, dying body is the most painful, recalling the viral footage of Philando Castile bleeding out in his car after being shot by the police, filmed by his girlfriend.
At some points, the movie feels too long and the subject matter makes it emotionally exhausting. But in dragging the story past what might be a comfortable stopping point, Tillman demonstrates the sheer scale of it all. Every time a shooting like this comes to national attention, it endures the same timeline of public grief and anger immediately following the death. And it all repeats if/when the cop is not convicted. The movie is long because the cycle is long, and by the time it has truly ended, more shootings have already happened.
Stenberg is impressive as Starr. She has range, from emotionally wrecked to glowingly happy. Her tears and smile are equally infectious. In one scene, while telling off her ignorant friend from Williamson, the anger is potent, not just from Starr, but from Stenberg, who has been publicly involved with the kind of activism portrayed in the movie. Only in scenes with her white boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), a bland toast of a man, does she falter, but that's more the fault of Apa. The movie could've done without a romantic plot at all, which never felt believable. But then again, the Parkland students still went to prom.
The standout of the supporting cast is Hornsby as Maverick, who is terrifying, warm, loving, strict, and protective. The movie opens with him giving "the talk" about getting accosted by cops simply for being black, and he exudes restrained anger.
The Hate U Give is a movie completely of its time. It couldn't and wouldn't have existed a few years ago. It's the first teen movie of this era that understands the racial and political turmoil of 2018. Teens and kids today can learn about the complications of systemic racism by watching the movie, so they'll be ready when it happens in real life.
The Hate U Give is in theaters now.