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Wednesday
Oct172018

Review: The Hate U Give

by Dancin' Dan

Audrey Wells, the screenwriter of The Hate U Give, lost her battle with cancer the day before the film opened. A sad story, to be sure, but what a send off. The Hate U Give, adapted from the novel by Angie Thomas, is a marvel of a film, one that completely belies its "YA literature" categorization. Its wrangling with the complex issues faced by black Americans surely owes a debt to Thomas's source material, but Wells's adaptation, directed by George Tillman, Jr., brings the novel to the screen in a form that breaks out of any audience box that it might be put in. It may come from a novel for teens, and it may feature a mostly black cast, but make no mistake: This is not just a film for everyone, it's one of the best, most vital films of the year.

Teenage Starr (Amandla Stenberg) and her family live in the "ghetto" area Garden Heights, because her parents think it is important to be with their people (they themselves grew up there), and daddy Maverick owns a grocery store there. But she and her older half-brother Seven attend a private school in a wealthier, whiter neighborhood...

Starr is a girl divided, putting on a persona at school so as to fit in and not seem too black, but also putting on something of a persona at home, where no one knows she has a dreamy white boyfriend (KJ Apa, looking a LOT more like a high schooler here than on Riverdale). It's hard enough dealing with your identity as a teenager, but Starr is living in two different worlds (something cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. heightens by shooting Garden Heights in hot reds and the prep school in cool blues). And both of Starr's worlds get rocked when, after a shooting breaks out at a house party, she and her childhood friend Khalil get pulled over by a cop and Khalil gets shot while reaching for a hairbrush.

Amandla Stenberg is a powerhouse as Starr, giving a performance that should put her in the Oscar conversation. Watching her body shift as she goes from being Starr to "Starr Version 2" and back is great enough, but as the situation intensifies, watching her face change as the true selves of the people close to her slowly reveal themselves is a master class. From this one fateful moment, Starr's world explodes, and it's only going to be a matter of time before she explodes right along with it. Watching her go from a carefree teenager to a politically active member of society is thrilling, and Stenberg traces Starr's arc with great care and keen insight.

But The Hate U Give is larger than Starr (and Stenberg). It is also just as much a story of a people, and it is clear that this film meant a lot to everyone who had a hand in making it. Every member of the ensemble is great, including Anthony Mackie as a local drug kingpin, Issa Rae as an activist attorney, and Regina Hall as Starr's mother. But the standout is Russell Hornsby. Under his watchful eye, Maverick is a kind of character we rarely get to see: He may look like a thug, and he may have done time in jail, but he is also devoted to his family and his community. This is a man who, after giving his elementary school-age children "the talk" about how to behave when they get stopped by the police, makes them memorize the Black Panther Party's 10-point platform. A man who is entrenched in his community but agrees to send his children to a prep school instead of the local high school, overrun as it is by sex, drugs, and gang violence. And, in Hornsby's hands, he is one of the best movie dads in recent memory. It's a fully-rounded portrait of a complicated man, and should be remembered by all awards bodies at year's end.

If the film's plot seems ripped from the headlines, it is - Thomas's novel was in large part inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, and was published just last year. The filmmakers take great pains to make sure that even audience members who live far away from either of Starr's two worlds can understand exactly what Starr's life is like. Starr's identity crisis is, like much of The Hate U Give, not quite like anything we've seen on screen before, and it cannot be understated how important that is. More representation of America's diverse populace is a good thing, and doing so in such a thoughtful way as this film does is even better. The film treats the black experience in America as the complex, thorny thing it is. There is no easy answer to the question of how we make things better, and The Hate U Give knows that. Even when the film is at its most strident and politically-minded, it never feels like a lecture. It is a film, first and foremost, and trusts in its world-building to engage and move the audience. It will almost certainly move you to tears, but its real goal is to move you to stand up and fight for a better, more just world, and it does so with smarts, grace, and fiery passion.

Grade: A-
Oscar Buzz: If it's a big hit (which it deserves to be), it's a threat in Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay for sure, and possibly even a longshot for Leading Actress and Picture.

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Reader Comments (1)

I'm glad you loved it as much as I did! My one quibble was I thought the ending tied things up a little too tidily (though still making clear that there was/is much work left to be done). That was the really the only moment - apart from a couple of Starr's early interactions with her BF - that gave me a YA/PG-13 feel.

Agree that while Stenberg and the rest of the cast is great, Hornsby is the MVP. He's simply amazing.

Also amazing: the *second* scene (much later in the movie) involving a hairbrush. You know the one I mean. It's just as raw, terrifying, and heartbreaking as the first one.

October 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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