The whole cast delivers, but this is Amandla Stenberg's movie, playing a 16-year-old who witnesses a police officer shoot and kill her unarmed friend. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
When Angie Thomas began her novel in 2009, rattled by the police shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, “The Hate U Give” told a timely story. Through the subsequent deaths of Michael Brown, Philando Castile and even Botham Jean last month, it remains pressing and urgent.
George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg). A sneaker-obsessed 16-year-old, she attends an upscale prep school during the week, but weekends are for her mostly poor, black neighborhood. When she witnesses a white police officer shoot and kill her unarmed friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), it’s a tipping point for the community. Starr struggles with how to respond, cope and speak for the dead.
What follows is a scathing, open-wound of a look at ingrained racism — from the judicial system and law enforcement to skewed media coverage that demonizes victims to Starr’s well-meaning classmates who, try as they might, will never truly understand. For them, Khalil’s death is a “cause”; an excuse to cut class, not reality.
Tillman stages immersive street protests. Chaotic and claustrophobic, the camera places the viewer in the middle of armored cops and flying tear gas, eliciting a visceral response.
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The whole cast delivers, especially Russell Hornsby, Starr’s reformed gangbanger father who wants to positively influence the neighborhood, and Regina Hall, her mother, doing the best for her kids. It’s a loving family dynamic, but this belongs to Starr. “The Hate U Give” succeeds or fails on Stenberg, and she carries the load.
School friends expect one thing, her family another. The community wants her testimony, loyalty compels her to speak, but that draws unwanted attention from police and local drug dealers. She doesn’t know who she is, where she fits or what to do, and Stenberg gives a phenomenal, raw, conflicted performance.
Audrey Wells’ script necessarily streamlines events — there’s more space on the page than on film. The neighborhood’s initial texture fades. A thread with Starr’s cop uncle (Common) carries one powerful wallop, but never develops. A prom sequence, nice on its own — Starr’s father meeting her white boyfriend (K.J. Apa) is gold — is oddly placed.
Stirring and enraging, “The Hate U Give” squeezes the air from your lungs. Bleak and heavy, it’s also hopeful and joyous. A palpable manifestation of suppressed anger and frustration too powerful to ignore, it offers a complex look at a complicated problem, one screaming to be addressed.
★★★½ “The Hate U Give,” with Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common, Algee Smith, K.J. Apa. Directed by George Tillman Jr., from a screenplay by Audrey Wells, based on a book by Angie Thomas. 132 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material, and language. Opens Oct. 12 at multiple theaters.