George Tillman Jr.‘s The Hate U Give has taken the recent Black Lives Matter movement—with all its passion, fury, and hunger for justice—and turned it into a lesson plan. The film lays out the complexities of contemporary race relations with a deliberateness that frequently edges over into didacticism.
Based on the young adult novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a young black girl from a low-income, high-crime neighborhood who travels across town to attend an affluent, mostly white prep school. No one in the film specifically mentions pioneering civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” but Starr’s overly explanatory narration ensures that we never miss the point: Her identity is split between “Starr 1,” the neighborhood’s ‘90s-obsessed sneakerhead, and “Starr 2,” the serious, cool-headed academic who acts whiter than her white friends so as not to intimidate them with her blackness.
Starr isn’t really comfortable in either mode, as she’s always suppressing herself, molding her behavior to fit a given situation. Low-key observations about being caught between these two very different worlds—Starr suffering her friends’ corny “urban” slang with a smile, her inappropriately frumpy outfit at a house party—are some of the film’s truest, most resonant moments.
Starr’s two very different worlds collide when she witnesses the murder of her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) at the hands of a white police officer (Drew Starkey) who mistakes his hairbrush for a handgun during a routine (read: bullshit) traffic stop. This incident sets off a protest movement that reaches all the way to Starr’s high school, where the kids use it as an excuse to blow off class. But it also opens up fissures in the girl’s family, between her quasi-radical father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), her family-first mother (Regina Hall), and her police-officer uncle (Common). In its attempt to cover a panoply of responses to racism, crime, and police violence, the film at times suggests a kind of junior version of The Wire, a wide-ranging social survey that’s largely intent on not demonizing and outright caricaturing people.
The problem, though, is that the incidents in The Hate U Give don’t happen to complicated human beings, but rather to two-dimensional avatars of people on both sides of what Du Bois referred to as “the color line.” See, for example, Starr’s supportive but occasionally clumsy white boyfriend (KJ Apa), a bland cardboard cutout who might as well be wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Good White Ally.” Given its intensely relevant subject matter, the film can’t help but churn up a lot of raw emotions—and the allusions to Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Emmett Till are reminders of the real-life sorrow that birthed this film—but Tillman’s anonymous direction is content merely to illustrate the screenplay without ever bringing it to life. Even scenes that are meant to be tinged with menace and danger—run-ins with a local gang, a shooting at a party—feel about as raw as an episode of Degrassi.
The Hate U Give is studiously fair-minded in its approach to the problems of violence perpetrated by cops and criminals. Its allegiances are clearly with the BLM movement, but it does take pains to recognize the scourge of drugs and gang violence. It’s notable that the only two irredeemable characters here are the cop who kills Khalil and the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie). The film’s most impressive feat may be its ability to “both sides” every issue without losing its firm commitment to racial justice.
But The Hate U Give‘s commitments only go so far, a limitation highlighted by Maverick’s repeated citing of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program. He makes Starr and her brothers (Lamar Johnson and TJ Wright) quote in unison the seventh point: “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,” and with Malcolm X’s dictum about racial independence needing to be achieved by “any means necessary” tacked on for good measure. But the film steers well clear of addressing the rest of the platform, with its radical demands for housing, full employment, and “an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black community.” (One might question whether this slick, Hollywood-backed production’s borrowing of a stirring image from the Ferguson uprising, in which protestor Edward Crawford—since deceased—threw a flaming tear gas canister at police, without so much as mentioning his name counts as one small example of such robbery.)
Instead, The Hate U Give crescendos with a risible moment of can’t-we-all-just-get-along mawkishness, in which Starr singlehandedly shames both a cop and a criminal into laying down their arms. If the film’s delineation of the problems of crime and violence are admirably clear-eyed, its proffered resolution is vague to the point of meaninglessness. Indeed, if we could stop the hate so easily, a film like this one wouldn’t even need to exist.