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The Hate U Give Movie Review

Hate Expectations

You may not see a braver, more affecting performance onscreen this year than that of Amandla Stenberg in "The Hate U Give." In this emotionally laden, politically astute coming of age story, Ms. Stenberg ("Everything, Everything") plays Starr Carter, a self-possessed teen who's accepted the need to maintain two selves: she's one person at home with her close, loving black family, and another at the fancy prep school where most of her fellow students are rich and white. Starr manages to straddle these two worlds until an encounter with police violence puts her in the spotlight, making her question her loyalties and her own identity.

"The Hate U Give" is based on the young adult novel by Audrey Wells, and the film's offscreen origins are clear in the well-developed characters and complex relationships throughout. Starr lives with her parents and younger brothers in a long-established black neighborhood where the family is part of a community that isn't rich but is close-knit. Her dad Maverick (Russell Hornsby, "Fences") has made good as a corner store owner after years as a gang member and a stint in prison. He helps Starr and her siblings navigate the conflicting influences of their community and school life by teaching them to be proud of their names and heritage. He also gives them "The Talk" that is sadly necessary in black families, and drills them on how to behave if confronted by the police.

But none of this helps when Starr, leaving a neighborhood party one weekend with childhood friend and romantic interest Khalil (Algee Smith, "Detroit") is part of a traffic stop that goes nightmarishly wrong. The officer who stops them thinks he sees a gun, and suddenly Starr finds herself crouching on the pavement next to Khalil, screaming and crying as he struggles to take his last breath.

What follows is a terrible whirlwind for Starr as she learns hard truths about guilt and fear, the realities of the justice system, and ways in which her life and experiences will always be different from those of her friends and classmates. She is simultaneously pulled to testify to the grand jury about Khalil's shooting, and to pretend that she doesn't know him. Everyone seems to have a different take on the incident: her mom (Regina Hall, "Girls Trip") who just wants her to be safe, a political activist (Issa Rae, Insecure) who urges her to speak up, her school friends who look at a demonstration march honoring Khalil as a great excuse to play hooky, and the local gang leader and drug dealer (Anthony Mackie, "Avengers: Infinity War") who threatens her to keep silent. Buffeted by these pressures, Starr fights to figure out who she is and which path is best for her.

"The Hate U Give," and especially Ms. Stenberg's performance, puts an real, immediate, and sympathetic face on an issue that so many of us are fortunate enough to view only at a distance, through news footage or academic and political discussions. Through Ms. Stenberg's portrayal and an insightful screenplay (Ms. Wells adapted her own novel for the screen) that illuminates her character's thoughtful and spirited inner life, Starr feels like a real teenager who is experiencing the curiosity and awkwardness of adolescence, while facing identity questions heightened by the terrible circumstances of her friend's death. The film does a powerful job of putting us in Starr's shoes through her everyday experiences of sharing breakfast with her family, sweating through gym class with her school buddies, and negotiating sexual boundaries with her boyfriend. Because of that, we're equally ready to see through her eyes the less common experiences of mourning a childhood friend lost to street violence, fleeing from a neighborhood party when gunfire erupts, and feeling the wash of terror when a routine traffic stop puts her face to face with the reality of her own vulnerability to violence.

Director George Tillman Jr. ("Notorious") is blessed with a marvelous cast and he handles them like a virtuoso, heightening dramatic sequences without going over the top and pulling back to let lighter moments play out naturally. While Ms. Stenberg's work is the real show-stopper here, she's more than ably backed by strong performances from Mr. Hornsby, Ms. Hall, and Ms. Rae. Mr. Smith utilizes his limited screentime as Khalil to make an indelible impression as the wise beyond his years teen who's just starting to glean the cracks in the system and formulate his own response to ingrained injustice.

There are a few drawbacks, including Mr. Mackie's tendency to overplay the thuggish gangster King, who's drawn as something of a boogeyman as he glares menacingly at Starr from random street corners or pops up unexpectedly during a family dinner. And some of the white characters seem sketched in only to the point of being able to carry now familiar straw man arguments or well-meaning platitudes related to the issue at hand ("blue lives matter too," "I don't even see color," etc.).

But on the whole, "The Hate U Give" is an enormously moving emotional work, and Amandla Stenberg gives a star-making performance as we watch Starr handle grief with grace and fight her way through pain and bewilderment to a place where she can stand with pride. It may be vindicating or uncomfortable depending on where the viewer stands, but nobody is going to come away from this film unchanged. "The Hate U Give" doesn't aspire to provide all the answers; rather, it demonstrates the importance of continuing to discuss the most painfully difficult questions.

Prior to opening nationally on October 19, "The Hate U Give" debuted in select cities and was promoted at special screenings across the country. I attended the film's Louisiana premier on October 10 in Baton Rouge. This special event was sponsored by the Louisiana Film Society, which regularly screens upcoming films prior to theatrical release as well as producing the annual Louisiana International Film Festival. Screening to rapt audiences in two theaters at AMC Perkins Rowe, "The Hate U Give" gave viewers plenty to think about, and generated enthusiastic discussions before patrons even had a chance to leave their seats.

The Louisiana Film Society's early premier was one of a number of screenings held prior to the wide release of "The Hate U Give" in an effort to bring attention to the film, and to encourage dialogue around its challenging subject matter. Twentieth Century Fox and AMC Theaters co-sponsored screenings in nine large metropolitan areas in early October to provide underserved youth with an opportunity to see the film, and civic and educational organizations nationwide are continuing to sponsor screenings and hold discussions throughout the month. Check out Eventbrite or search local listings to see if free screenings are available in your area.


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