Saturday, November 24, 2018

Girl Week 2018: The Hate U Give

It's Day 6 of Girl Week 2018. Thank you for making it this far. Let's drive on.

Directed by George Tillman Jr.
2018. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.
Amandla Stenberg
Russell Hornsby
Regina Hall
Anthony Mackie
Lamar Johnson
Sabrina Carpenter
Issa Rae
KJ Apa
Algee Smith
Dominique Fishback

There's a scene early in The Hate U Give I'm completely familiar with that I know didn't happen in many of your households. We see a pair of parents giving their kids one of the many talks they have to give, if you're black. This talk was centered on how to behave if, and when, you get pulled over by the police. The point of this conversation is the very real possibility that any move made by a black person, especially a male, will be conceived as a dangerous enough threat that it will be met by swift and decisive violence. The police aren't there to serve and protect, but to search, seize, and execute if either of the first two are hindered in a way that makes them feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable. It's a talk I know many of my dear readers have never had and will never have to give to their children. I have not only given the talk, but have been stopped several times where "driving while black" is the only logical explanation. The ramifications of not flawlessly following the instructions one character gives his family, much the same as the ones I've given to my own son, and had to follow myself, are the topic of this film.

The Hate U Give centers on Starr (Stenberg), a 16 year old girl from the 'hood known as Garden Heights. Her parents don't want her attending the local high school, so they do all they can to send Starr and her brother Seven (Johnson) to a predominantly white private school across town. She excels in school, but much of day-to-day effort is spent trying to fit in as best she can in both worlds. At a party in Garden Heights that she reluctantly attends, she runs into Khalil (Smith), a boy she was really close with when she was younger, but hasn't seen in quite some time. They strike up a conversation and he offers her a ride when her friends bail on her to partake in some extracurricular activities in which she has no interest. On that ride, Khalil gets pulled over by the cops despite doing nothing wrong. Khalil's mistake is failing to follow the carefully laid out rules of the talk Starr's dad gave her. He reaches for a hairbrush and is immediately shot dead. The officer is, of course, put on paid administrative leave. The neighborhood is understandably up in arms. When it gets out that Starr saw the whole thing, she is implored to testify against the cop.

No doubt, the topics this film chooses to tackle are compelling and relevant. Aside from the aforementioned interactions between the police and black folks, there is also Starr dealing with her own dual identity. No matter where she goes, she never wants to "too" anything. She doesn't want to be too black at her white school nor too white in her black neighborhood. It's an all "too" real struggle for many African-Americans. The way many of us behave in public and in private are entirely different things. It's that way to some extent for most people, but for people of color it can be extreme. Constantly volleying between the two tears at a person's sense of self. The Hate U Give explores this phenomenon through some adept writing and a performance by Amandla Stenberg that breaks your heart many times over. This is where the movie is strongest. Though there is too much telling by way of narration for my liking, but this is the most well-handled aspect of the story. Starr's fight to find, maintain, and develop her identity resides in the film's engine room propelling it forward and reeling us in. It works because Stenberg has the ability to worm her way into our hearts no matter the quality of the movie around her.

The movie around Stenberg is a good one, in this case, but doesn't live up to its potential. Its handling of the main plot and the biggest subplot is the culprit. The subplot is forced into the movie merely to provide a secondary conflict for Starr and her family to deal with. It involves the local gang, under the leadership of King (Mackie), whom Starr's dad Maverick (Hornsby) used to be friends with and who is the father of Starr's best friend Kenya (Fishback). Due to the complicated nature of the relationships of all these people, King certainly has a role to play in the film. However, having him as an ancillary villain is unnecessary. His plotline is completely avoidable. It only matters because Starr goes out of her way to say the gang's name on television. It also makes a beeline for its obvious conclusion.

The main plot is where the bigger issues lie. Through most of the movie, it plays out in fine fashion. It hits all the talking points of the issue at hand, police treatment of blacks, and makes sure we're rooting for Starr. We're not just in support of her cause, we're actively rooting for her. Her successes and failures are ours. In case we ever waver, there are several well-timed 'hell yeah' moments to keep us locked in. Sadly, this storyline has an unfortunate duality of its own. It plays out in a way that totally makes sense. It's a moment we know is coming, but hope is not. That's fine. What's not is the film's insistence on sugar-coating it. This makes the movie seem less interested in being a meaningful examination of its chosen topic than it is manipulating it into an inspirational tale. Don't get me wrong, there needs to be inspirational films, however, I don't like when they happen as a result of softening blows it should otherwise land with impact.

Who is this movie for? If it's for black audiences, I get it. It's about staying strong and prospering in the face of mountains of systemic and self-created adversity. It's a never-give-up pep talk for a community occasionally in need of one. If it's for white audiences then the end of this film is doing its intended viewers a disservice. The main plot resolves itself in a way that feels all too familiar which is actually a good call. However, the aftermath of that seeks to bury it beneath a bed of roses. The audience is allowed to downplay and possibly even forget what really took place to focus on the happily ever after. The kick in the gut needed (expected?) is given as a love tap. It's a highly sanitized version of reality that wants to maintain artistic integrity and a happy ending which it doesn't quite earn.

None of this makes The Hate U Give a bad movie. If you're looking for a feel-good movie, by golly you're gonna get it. Stenberg's infectious charm will see to it. Backing her are a bevy of earnest performances. Lamar Johnson as Seven and vet Regina Hall as her mom are both very good, as is Sabrina Carpenter, who plays Hailey, Starr's friend from school. Common has a small role as Starr's uncle and gives the film one of its most poignant and disappointing moments. Most of the heavy liftng, however, is done by Russell Hornsby as Starr's dad. As much as our hearts bleed for Starr, his Maverick is really the most interesting character. Hornsby manages to convey all of his character's wisdom, flaws, pain, and hope all at once. We root for him as much as, if not more than, Starr. It's never in a way that detracts from her, though. We realize that rooting for him IS rooting for her. We get caught up in their plight and embrace their triumph. We find some troubling aspects when we dig around a bit, but in the moment, it's a ride that ends on a high. We love it because we need something good to come out of the rest of the film's despair.

Day 5's Girl Week Entries


  1. This is another one I haven't seen and honestly I haven't even considered doing so. I was put off by the title from the get go and didn't read a synopsis until now. It sounds more promising than I would have expected so I may give it a shot, though I have to say that having one of the main characters named something as foolish as Seven raises my heckles before I see one frame.

    1. If it helps, the movie actually does address his name several times - a couple times as jokes, but once to explain.

  2. I watched it yesterday and I loved it. While I agree that the King Lord subplot felt unnecessary (it had a bigger/better impact in the novel), pretty much everything else worked for me. As for the film's target, I think it's both for a black audience and a white one. The first for the reasons you mentioned, the latter because the film raises awareness about police brutality, race hatred, and the black lives matter movement, which, unlike too many white people think, it's not anti-white nor anti-police. It's about injustice.

    1. I'm sure the movie really angled itself to appeal to both black and white audiences. My issue with the way it approaches white viewers is that it softens its blow to the point it can be brushed aside. At some juncture, it's not enough to make people aware of something that's been all over the news for several years. There needs to be an impact made. The way the movie ends lessens that. It's still very good, just not as good as it could've been.

  3. I loved this, but I agree with the King subplot. It wasn't really needed.

    I'm glad you brought up who the movie was for, because I thought about that too. I thought Starr's friend Hailey was speaking directly to people who don't believe white privilege is a thing. She was so problematic in ways she didn't even notice. I thought she was for those people, but as a whole I think it was meant for everyone.

    Russell Hornsby should be around during Oscar time but when do I ever get what I want from the Academy? lol

    1. Great point about Hailey. I especially love that "she was so problematic in ways she didn't even notice." People not noticing their own advantages is a huge part of the problem.

      I'd love for Hornsby to get some Oscar love, but I doubt he will.

  4. It's a feel good movie? Odd. All these innocent shootings by cops dont have feel good endings because people are still blind racial profiling. We have similar problems in the UK, but by god its nowhere as bad as the US.

    Sadly, i have yet to see this but have been meaning to.

    1. It definitely deserves to be seen, so I hope you get to it soon. I just didn't like that it took that road at the end.

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