Movie Review: ‘THE HATE U GIVE’ is a crucial, crushing coming-of-age tale

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE HATE U GIVE

Rated PG-13, 132 minutes
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Starring: Amandla StenbergRegina HallRussell Hornsby, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Common, Sabrina Carpenter, K.J. Apa, Dominique Fishback, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright, Issa Rae

Filmmaker George Tillman Jr.’s pristine cinematic adaptation of Angie Thomas’ young adult novel THE HATE U GIVE is just as emotionally gripping as any thrill-a-minute action film, because it’s about a personal, unwavering call to action. It even begins on an attention grabber. This portrait of young black woman finding her power is a hero’s journey for the modern era, a galvanizing force for good, and a radical powder keg of a coming-of-age tale. Full of soul-quaking performances and an uncompromised, unfiltered and unflinching message that everyone needs to hear, it’s a real winner.

We’re welcomed into the Carter family’s life in Garden Heights within minutes of the 20th Century Fox fanfare. Their breakfast table is all aglow with director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s effused sunlight, and their love for each other. It’s like any other idealized picture of a family beginning their day, except for one key detail: Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and Lisa (Regina Hall) are giving their kids – Seven (Lamar Johnson), Starr (Amandla Stenberg) and baby Sekani (played later in youth by TJ Wright) – a sobering awakening about being black in America. They’re getting “The Talk,” an imperative lecture on how to handle being pulled over by police. Yet it will be a few years before this life-saving lesson will affect Starr, our heroine.

The dynamic relationships – ones with chasm-like fissures in their foundations – set the scene for the ensuing drama. Starr’s parents are splintered in their ideas, with Maverick wanting to stay put in their community, running a small grocery store, and Lisa feeling the need to flee for safety. This has also led to a divide between Maverick and his brother, policeman Carlos (Common). Maverick and gang leader/ former best friend King (Anthony Mackie) attempt to remain cordial to each other for the sake of family, their bond grows more corrosive. Seven is also nursing issues with his hot-tempered stepfather King.

Amandla Stenberg and Algee Smith in THE HATE U GIVE. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Even Starr is a fractured persona, unable to rectify her school life with her home life. On weekdays, she lives as “Starr Version 2,” a student at a predominantly white private high school. Her classmates commonly trade in appropriated slang terms that Starr doesn’t dare use, as she’s ashamed, fearful of tokenism. Not only does she surround herself with white friends Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and Maya (Megan Lawless), she even has a white boyfriend, Chris (Josh Harnett doppelganger, K.J. Apa), whom she hides from her family. On the weekends, she reverts to her normal self with her whip-smart half-sister/ friend Kenya (Dominique Fishback) and adorably-dimpled childhood crush Khalil (Algee Smith).  However, Starr’s perfectly compartmentalized life shatters into disarray on one fateful night when, during traffic stop, she sees Khalil shot and killed by a white police officer.

Starr’s duality isn’t just reflected narratively, but also visually through the color-coding in Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography, William Arnold’s production design and Frank Fleming’s costume design. Cool tones populate Starr’s world at school, favoring a range of blues, grays and blacks. A warmer, saturated palette influences her weekend world with punctuating primary colors.

Tillman and screenwriter Audrey Wells never lose track of Starr’s inner conflict amidst all the concurrent, escalating dramatics. Her psychological push-pull is palpable and gut-wrenching. The way her circumstances culminate and how the after-effects resonate is what makes this picture riveting. It’s not just the big “movie moment” set pieces – like Starr’s argument with Hailey about skin color affecting white people’s perception, or Starr’s emphatic plea to Chris to see her full identity including her skin-color. Some of the most dynamic sequences are the quiet reserve of the interpersonal scenarios involving the instilled lessons from her father. Tillman Jr. also takes great care to ensure the messages push the envelope, but aren’t over the top. It’s not preaching to the choir. It’s crafting a welcoming sanctuary in which to worship.

None of the activism-fueled messages would land if not for the incredible performances of the actors – specifically Hornsby and Stenberg. Both do breathtaking work, approaching their roles with raw honesty, authenticity, compassion, immediacy and empathy. Their conviction and delivery is potent. Same goes for the supporting performances from Hall (whose restraint and empathy are noteworthy), Fishback (who makes the most of her limited screen time) and Smith (who’s magnetic with Stenberg as his screen partner). Not only does this group of actors light up the screen, they light a fire in our hearts and under our butts.

Grade: A

THE HATE U GIVE opens nationwide on October 19.

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