It's easy for adult critics to dismiss movies aimed at teens. The same people who greet every new offering from DC Comics and Marvel with breathless excitement suddenly get more critical when the source material is a YA novel. Full disclosure: I write YA novels, so I take them seriously. But everybody should feel that way about The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas' best-selling novel.
Yes, this film from director George Tillman Jr. (Notorious) is a coming-of-age drama with a dewy-eyed star and voice-over narration. Yes, it has scenes of high school girls giggling over boys. And it pulls zero punches in confronting its main subject: American racism.
"If you don't see my blackness, you don't see me." That's what protagonist Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) tells her white boyfriend (K.J. Apa) after he informs her he "doesn't see color." It's also the movie's message to audiences who might feel more comfortable repeating the familiar award-season bromides about how everybody is the same under the skin.
Starr hasn't always been so frank with her white friends. When the movie opens, she's leading two lives in one, living in a working-class African American neighborhood while attending a private school where she becomes "Starr 2.0." In funny but pointed vignettes, the movie shows us how she adapts to the latter setting, acting perky and positive and carefully avoiding the same slang that her white classmates use to sound "cool."
Then something happens that blows up the carefully constructed boundaries between Starr's two worlds. While she's out driving with her childhood best friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), a cop stops him for missing a turn signal. Things escalate, and the unarmed Khalil is shot dead as he reaches for a hair brush.
No viewer will be surprised when the cop who fired on Khalil isn't indicted, and the public protests start. For Starr, this all-too-familiar situation poses a personal dilemma: If she speaks up for Khalil as a witness, she could compromise her school persona. And she could get her whole family in trouble with the drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) for whom Khalil was working, who also happens to be living with her half-brother's mom.
Family is central to the film; Tillman and late screenwriter Audrey Wells painstakingly show us Starr's home support system. Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby play her loving parents, who have schooled her to deal with the dangers of being black in America but couldn't have foreseen this situation. In the end, Starr has to make her own choices, and some of those choices — particularly in a climactic protest scene — are explosive. Others, while quieter, feel just as important.
There's a lot happening in the movie's two-hour-plus run, and the occasional heavy-handed moment. But a wealth of well-drawn characters and relationships keep the plot absorbing. While Tillman doesn't show the stylistic flair of Spike Lee, the movie embraces human complexity in a way reminiscent of his ground-breaking Do the Right Thing. No one on-screen is pure evil, but that doesn't mean there aren't wrong and right ways to act. Starr's challenge is finding the one consistent with the person she wants to be.
It's a classic coming-of-age dilemma, but hardly one irrelevant to adults. How many white people in liberal enclaves have had the kinds of open conversations about race and privilege that Starr starts with her friends here? It's still rare to see these topics even broached in a mainstream movie. It shouldn't be.