There’s something inherently confounding about The Hate U Give, George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’ YA novel of the same name. In every scene lies the cornerstones of bad filmmaking: ostensibly harmful stereotypes, blockbuster clichés and an out-of-touch youth perspective that is, on occasion, laughable. Yet The Hate U Give is so full of rage at the institutionalised racism nurtured by American society that it’s impossible to not feel stirred by the bare-boned political activism the film presents.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) has two public personas. Born and raised in the poverty-stricken Garden Heights, Starr has been exposed to the fatal realities of hood life. In an effort to escape the cycle of crime and poverty, Starr’s family send her to a wealthy private school consisting of predominantly white children whereupon she develops a second persona, one that distances her from the world she grew up in and her own inherent blackness. When her childhood friend Khalid (Algee Smith) is shot dead by a police officer as he drives Starr home from a party, she finds the two worlds causing untold friction as she becomes embroiled in the ensuing trial. With pressure mounting from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice to instigate real and lasting change.
From the offset, The Hate U Give lacks a distinct focus. Initially presented as a sort of urban Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging that is both groan-inducing and immensely embarrassing, there’s a palpable fear that The Hate U Give might be completely tonally deaf. The pitfalls of YA literature seep into every frame, managing to feel completely discordant and exceedingly juvenile in equal measure. Unfortunately, that fear never fades away, even if some of the juvenility does.
The story’s drug dealers are so stereotypically nefarious that it borders on farcical, with Starr’s ex-dealer turned virtuous father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) embodying a racist caricature. Indeed, the whole drug trade is handled with such lack a of nuance that it serves to reiterate preconceptions of what a two-dimensional ‘villain’ is rather than approach what the rest of the script tries to tackle: the socio-economic conditions that leads to such a way of life. This often comes in the form of Tupac’s coveted acronym T.H.U.G L.I.F.E. (The hate u give little infants fucks everybody), which later gives way to an an exasperating literal interpretation in the denouement.
Yet there is an unbridled rage bubbling under the film’s surface, largely credited to Angie Thomas’ source material. Amandla Stenberg provides a powerhouse of a performance, serving as a vessel that embodies the despair prevalent in the book and in wider American discourse. In parts, The Hate U Give seems beyond the medium of film, utilising Starr’s character to angrily question the societal constructs designed to keep poverty in place in an almost meta manner that divorces itself from the context of the film. It’s these moments that prove to be the most emotionally engaging, fuelled by the rage of millions of African-Americans caught in the vortex of poverty.
Perhaps with better direction The Hate U Give could have fulfilled the vital and urgent message that rests at its heart. Instead, it becomes increasingly apparent Tillman’s film is not the best vehicle to adequately distil Thomas’ agitprop mantra to devastating effect. The result is a hot mess of over-worn tropes that disregards tightly-focused filmmaking in favour of heart-wrenching and raw character work, although there is no doubt that both aspects could exist in tandem in the hands of a more capable director.