The film centers around Starr Carter, played by Amandla Stenberg, a teenage black girl who lives in a fictional, predominantly black neighborhood called Garden Heights with her parents, brother and half-brother. Starr’s mother Lisa, played by Regina Hall, makes the decision to send Starr and her half-brother to an upper-class, mostly white high school called Williamson in an effort to shield them from the violence of their community. As a result, Starr lives an uneasy balance between two worlds — the world of Garden Heights and the world of Williamson. She uses two different “versions” of herself, code-switching to blend in with both communities. This balance, which Starr navigates on a day-to-day basis, is disrupted when Starr witnesses the murder of her childhood friend Khalil, played by Algee Smith, by a young police officer who shoots Khalil while he’s unarmed. Starr, facing pressure from all sides of her communities — as well as the entire country — has to learn to find her strength and make her voice heard to stand up for Khalil and fight against injustice and police brutality.
The film follows Starr as she navigates a psychological minefield, but the story is depicted within the framework of Starr’s high school experience. Seeing the film through the eyes of a young woman in high school, unlike the majority of films with similar themes that take place through the eyes of fully grown adults, provides a perspective often disregarded in films of this nature.
The film deals with topics that are sadly relevant in contemporary society. Unarmed black people being brutalized by cops has almost turned into a twisted cliche in modern films, but it’s imperative to not be desensitized to it. As these tragedies continue to happen, films like “The Hate U Give” become even more essential.
Indeed, the themes, messages and wide variety of perspectives portrayed in “The Hate U Give” are the main reasons to see the film. First and foremost, the film stresses the importance of activism and calling out injustice, centering around police brutality, racism and the racial biases certain people unconsciously hold.
The film’s title, which the characters address in several meta scenes, was created as an acronym by Tupac Shakur, whose THUG LIFE concept stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody.” In keeping with Shakur’s sentiments, the film stresses breaking the cycle of violence perpetuated by the hatred instilled in people at a young age.
The film also emphasizes the importance of family and community, showcasing the Carter family as a loving family that overcomes hardships together, guided in large part by Starr’s father Maverick, outstandingly played by Russell Hornsby.
Code-switching — changing oneself for different situations — is also a dominant theme in “The Hate U Give.” At Williamson, Starr can’t act “ghetto” because she doesn’t want her white classmates — some of whom use slang language to, in their view, look cool — to judge her negatively. At Garden Heights, Starr doesn’t seem to fit in because she’s always around white kids at school. Code-switching and its negative effects have been a frequently occurring theme in films recently, most notably in “Sorry to Bother You” and “BlacKkKlansman,” but “The Hate U Give” provides a perspective that directly targets millennials.
This youthful focus, along with the film’s surprising PG-13 rating, makes the film accessible to younger audiences, but it will alienate older viewers. Starr uses modern slang throughout that, while occasionally cringeworthy, seems designed to appeal to teenage viewers. This works to the film’s overall benefit, though, because more people will likely see the film as a result. Young people, are the future, after all, and they have to deal with the injustices passed down to them by older generations. “The Hate U Give” recognizes this, and that’s to be commended.
It’s impossible to discuss the film without talking about Stenberg, who gives a brilliant performance. She’s required to convey a wide array of emotions throughout the film, and she fully commits to her difficult role. In several critical scenes, there’s a palpable intensity to Stenberg’s performance that’s heartbreaking and unforgettable.
Part of the film’s greatness, though, is that while it tackles controversial, socially relevant topics, there’s also moments of levity and humor sprinkled throughout the film. This mixture of the heartbreaking and the mundane is reflective of life in general, as moments of warmth will manifest themselves amid dark circumstances.
“The Hate U Give” does have some notable flaws, though, mainly centering around the film’s accessibility. While I understand the importance of appealing to a mass audience, some moments in the film felt like I was watching a show on The CW. Teenage drama has never much interested me, and some scenes in “The Hate U Give” felt emotionally distant as a result.
Furthermore, while the central messages conveyed in the film are objectively important, the ways in which some are conveyed throw nuance out the window. Some scenes are quite heavy-handed, almost feeling like a cinematic lecture. For younger viewers previously not exposed to the injustices within modern society, these scenes might prove entirely beneficial, but for me, they felt forced at times. The finale in particular defies believability in several aspects, but it serves to illustrate the film’s overall themes.
Director George Tillman Jr.’s filmmaking techniques are also perfectly serviceable, but they are not as finessed as the work of Boots Riley or Spike Lee. The majority of shots are relatively plain, but then again, general viewers won’t care.
“The Hate U Give” is a film everyone, especially younger viewers, should watch. It’s one of the most important films of the year.