Monday, October 22, 2018

Movie Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give **** / *****
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Written by: Audrey Wells based upon the novel by Angie Thomas.
Starring: Amandla Stenberg (Starr Carter), Regina Hall (Lisa Carter), Russell Hornsby (Maverick 'Mav' Carter), Anthony Mackie (King), Issa Rae (April Ofrah), Common (Carlos), Algee Smith (Khalil), Sabrina Carpenter (Hailey), K.J. Apa (Chris), Dominique Fishback (Kenya), Lamar Johnson (Seven Carter), TJ Wright (Sekani), Megan Lawless (Maya), Rhonda Johnson Dents (Miss Rosalie).
The Hate U Give has to try and accomplish so much in its 135-minute runtime, that its amazing it pulls off as much as it does – and its inevitable, that some of it will play more like an afterthought. It’s based on a Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas – and you can tell the movies roots in some its broadest elements, the way the screenplay gives everyone a monologue in which they make explicit how they feel, and how the story chooses to wrap everything up in the end. You could easily dismiss the film as being a Black Lives Matter for teens primer, if you want to, and perhaps that’s even fair. But someone, more often than not, The Hate U Give works – at its most basic level, it is the story a young, black girls’ political coming of age – how she becomes radicalized, because that seems like the only choice. If it’s all wrapped up in too simple a package – so be it. I think teenagers need to hear this message – and I know a lot of adults who need to as well.
The story focuses on Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a young black girl who lives in the crime ridden inner city, but who goes to the affluent, white suburbs to attend high school. She makes it clear in the beginning that she torn between two worlds – she cannot be too much school Starr in her neighborhood, because it would make her look weak, but she cannot be too much home Starr at school, as it may make her look “ghetto”. Almost all her classmates are white – and they embrace black culture, like slang and music, but Starr is smart enough to know they can do that, and still shrug it off when they want to – that’s called white privilege, and she doesn’t have it. The story really gets started at a party in her neighborhood one weekend – a party she flees with Khalil (Algee Smith) after an argument leads to a gun being drawn. She has known Khalil since they were kids, but they’ve drifted apart in recent years – her because she goes to that white school, and him because his grandma has gotten sick, and the only way to make money is to sell drugs. And if you sell drugs in that neighborhood, you work for King (Anthony Mackie). A cop, of course, will pull Khalil and Starr over on the way home from the party, and of course, confusion over a hair brush, will end with Khalii dead in the street. The moral question at the core is whether Starr will stand up for her friend and testify. Will it make a difference, or will it be yet another cop getting away with murder? Will telling what she knows about King, make him angry and come after her? Her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) used to work for King – but got out years ago after a stint in prison – he now runs a convenience store.
There are more subplots – a lot more subplots. About her white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), or her white friends in school – who when confronted with the reality will not take it well. About her mother Lisa (Regina Hall), her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson), fathered by Maverick during a brief breakup with Lisa, whose mother now lives with King. Of her younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright), always smiling. About April Ofrah (Issa Rae), an activity for an organization called Just Us for Justice, which is a way of bringing up Black Lives Matter, without saying the words. About her uncle Carlos (Common), a cop himself, who believes in the system, although in a powerful moment recognizes that he might have acted the same way with Khalil – but not a white man in the same situation. And on, and on and on. You can cram all of these plots into a book – or a TV show – it’s hard to do so in a movie and not make it feel overstuffed. Director George Tillman Jr. does an admirable job of doing just that.
It’s perhaps even more admirable that Tillman and company find a way to portray systematic racism, instead of individual racism. Movies, most often, excel at being stories about people, not systems, which is why it seems like other recent movies that try and cover similar ground (be it Detroit or Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) tend to look more at bad apples, than a system wide failure. Here, culminating in a riot, the film gets the balance right.
It’s everything after that riot – where Starr yells back at the police through a bullhorn, and throws the teargas back at them, that doesn’t really work. That scene is a powerful climax – that shows the violence, yet shows how inevitable it is when people are systematically oppressed, and shoved into a corner, that works wonderfully. After, there are scenes at her father convenience store, and then a wrap-up montage, that feel false and forced. It feels designed to make the audience feel better rather than a natural end of the movie.
Still, so much of the movie works – even the monologues – that the ending is a blip instead of a fatal flaw. You will leave remembering Common’s scene, admitting his own bias, or the scene where Hall explains why she stayed with Maverick, or when Hornsby explains his worldview. And you will remember the remarkable performance by the young Stenberg. Sure, the movie is too long and overstuffed, and has a cluttered, inauthentic ending. But what it does well is more than enough to overcome what it doesn’t.

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