Like Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” earlier this year, “The Hate U Give” explores the all-too-real turmoil of black people who are tasked with walking between two worlds.
Black civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the internal conflict African-Americans often feel as subordinated members of a society in which they’re frequently subjected to racial discrimination.
DuBois was explicitly name-checked by the characters in “BlacKkKlansman” as undercover police officer Ron Stallworth performed acts of “code switching” to fit in with groups of black and white people.
However, in “The Hate U Give,” the adaptation of Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel by screenwriter Aubrey Wells and director George Tillman Jr., the plight of Starr Carter (played by Amandla Stenberg) is all the more poignant because she’s not an adult cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan but a 16-year-old high school student who simply wants to live the same life as any other teenager.
Except that, as Starr notes, the sort of life that her affluent white classmates take for granted is not one she can expect as a black girl who goes home to a poor, crime-prone neighborhood, a lesson imparted by her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) near the start of the film, when he gives Starr and her brothers “the talk” about how to survive encounters with police.
Those words come back to haunt Starr when she becomes a firsthand witness to the shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith) by a patrol officer who apparently mistakes the young man’s hairbrush for a gun.
As the only witness to this shooting, Starr is torn between standing up for her fallen friend and being thrust into the media spotlight by testifying before a grand jury, which she and her mother Lisa (Regina Hall) both know will cause her white classmates to treat her differently.
At the same time, Starr’s testimony would put her and her family in the crosshairs of local gang leader King (Anthony Mackie), whom Maverick once worked for, because Khalil was dealing drugs for King.
While Mackie is largely forgettable as the glowering King, Regina Hall again delivers a great “tough mom” performance, just as she did in “Support the Girls,” and Common makes the most of his brief screen time as Starr’s uncle Carlos, a police officer who outlines all the ways in which cops are trained to be wary of potential suspects.
It’s Stenberg who truly shines as Starr, though, whether she’s sparking off effortlessly natural chemistry with both Smith as the charmingly confident Khalil and K.J. Apa of “Riverdale” as her naive but good-hearted boyfriend Chris, or when she’s portraying Starr’s PTSD in the aftermath of the shooting.
Perhaps most fascinating are the moments when Stenberg shows Starr finally reacting to the latent racism of her white friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), who appropriates Khalil’s death through a “protest” walkout from school that’s really just an excuse for her and the other white students to cut class.
Having grown up watching films like “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) and “Juice” (1992) during my high school youth, “The Hate U Give” is in some respects a very familiar sort of film but a much more nuanced one than many of its predecessors, and, unfortunately, it remains as relevant as ever.
I appreciate that young black women are being given a shot as the stars of their own stories in film, even if the conclusion to this particular tale felt a little too tidy.