Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives in Garden Heights, a mostly poor, mostly black neighborhood where her parents grew up, but she attends a mostly rich, mostly white prep school. To cope with the differences in these two worlds, she informs early on in The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman, Jr., she has developed two identities: Garden Heights Starr and Williamson Starr. She’s a keen observer of the unwritten rules that govern her high school, so she knows that while the white kids may gain social points by imitating aspects of black culture, at school she must avoid any behavior that would taint her as “ghetto,” and above all must be approachable and nonconfrontational.
Starr handles the code-switching demands of her life admirably until one day something happens that requires her to address, rather than ignore, the differences in the two worlds she moves in. One evening she leaves a party with Khalil (Algee Smith), a boy she grew up with in Garden Heights. He is pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and before you know it he’s been shot dead by “Cop 115” (Drew Starkey). Starr (who was ordered to not record the arrest with her phone, but did manage to note the policeman’s badge number) is handcuffed and taken the the police station, where she is asked not about what happened at the traffic stop but about information that could be used to discredit Khalil.
Starr’s parents (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) are understandably concerned about protecting their daughter, particularly since any testimony about the drug trade in the neighborhood (Khalil was a dealer, but for the most admirable of reasons—it was the only way he could support his family) could bring down the wrath of the local strongman, King (Anthony Mackie). Her friends at school have no idea what she is going through, because she can’t tell them about the traffic stop, and even if she did, her Garden Heights life is so far outside their experience that they have no way to relate to it.
What I like best about The Hate U Give, which was adapted from a bestselling YA novel by Angie Thomas, is how firmly it keeps its focus on its young heroine. Yes, the plot may be ripped from the headlines (although there have been so many police shootings of unarmed black men recently that one might well ask which headline), but The Hate U Give is primarily about how Starr deals with the challenges facing her, and how she finds a way to reconcile her two identities. It’s also a wonderful portrayal of a family (including an older half-brother played by Lamar Johnson, and a younger brother played by T.J. Wright) made up of imperfect people who still find a way to get it right on everything that really matters.
Near the end of the film, Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), who serves with the same police force that killed Khalil, tries to explain to her how complicated a simple traffic stop can be from the perspective of a police officer. Her point of view from the passenger’s seat in the car of someone she knows is quite different, he tells her, from that of the policeman who doesn’t know who the driver is or whether he is dangerous, and who understandably becomes alarmed if the driver fails to obey his commands. But to Starr’s way of looking at things, just because something is complicated doesn’t mean that there’s no way to distinguish right from wrong. The truth is that they’re both right, and that is the difficult reality is behind the story of The Hate U Give. |Sarah Boslaugh