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Review: The Hate U Give

October 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

When Tupac Shakur talked about the “THUG LIFE”, he said it stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” This is where the title of The Hate U Give comes from, and the meaning of this quote is discussed throughout the film.

What Tupac was referring to is the idea that if a young kid is born into a poor neighbourhood, and grows up surrounded by violence, then that kid is more likely to turn to violence as a result. If there are no jobs, then people are more likely to turn to drug dealing and crime to make ends meet, and then they end up in prison or worse, which often keeps fathers out of the homes and further destabilizes the family unit, and so on and so forth.

Poverty begets poverty, and violence begets violence, in a vicious cycle that is doomed to just keep repeating itself, unless someone actually steps up to break this cycle, and the idea is that how you do this is by giving love instead of hate. Based on the bestselling young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a gripping and well made big screen adaptation that provides proof of the ability that even the most commercially viable movies can have to tell powerful and relevant stories.

The film follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a 16-year-old black girl who essentially has two versions of herself. When she is just hanging out with her family in their working class neighbourhood of Garden Heights, where her father (Russell Hornsby) owns a convenience store and they have a tight-knit community, she is free to just be herself. But at the rich and predominantly white prep school that she goes to nearby, she is conscious of her speech patterns, so as not to appear too “ghetto” and paint even more of a target on her back.

But things take a horrific turn following a neighbourhood party, when Starr takes a ride back with her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith). It’s in this scene that Tupac’s concept of the “THUG LIFE” is first discussed, with the iconic rapper’s music fittingly providing the soundtrack. They get pulled over by a police officer (Drew Starkey) for a traffic stop, and Khalil (Algee Smith) is shot and killed, despite the fact that he is unarmed. It’s one of the most harrowing sequences in the film, and the way that these moments are framed onscreen fills us with a sense of dread. We already know what’s going to happen, and it’s the inevitability of the gunshots that make them so heartbreaking when they come.

As the only witness to the killing, Starr ends up embroiled in a heavily publicized fight for justice that threatens to force both of her worlds to collide, and even brings up divisions in her own community. The situation is complicated by the fact that her uncle (Common) is also a cop, and the area is essentially run by a violent gang known as the King Lords, whose leader (Anthony Mackie) becomes worried that Starr will cross them, especially since her father is a former gang member. Starr struggles to do the right thing, while also trying to stop her older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and her younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) from getting involved in the conflict.

Brought to the screen by director George Tillman Jr., who does a good job of navigating the many plot threads, The Hate U Give is a multilayered drama that features a rich tapestry of characters, who all bring different perspectives to the complex story. Amandla Stenberg delivers a star turn in the lead, and she is supported by a strong ensemble cast. Algee Smith is able to leave an impact on the entire film in his few crucial scenes, and also watch for Russell Hornsby, who delivers an excellent and multifaceted performance as Starr’s father, bringing fascinating nuance to the role.

As rioters take to the streets and things spiral out of control, the climactic moments of The Hate U Give fill us with a mix of suspense and dread, leaving us waiting to see if this cycle of violence will continue for another generation, or if Starr will be able to finally break it, at least for her own family. This is a top tier YA adaptation, that is unafraid of igniting a complex and timely conversation in a nuanced yet still accessible way. It’s a powerful film that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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