When approaching a young-adult film, the expectation is usually that it will take contemporary problems and transfer them to a fantastical setting, like the "Harry Potter" or "Hunger Games" series. There’s usually a layer of magic or post-apocalyptic action to keep viewers from thinking too hard about how the issues at hand translate to their own lives.
And then there’s "The Hate U Give," a YA book-turned-film that doesn’t give its audience in either medium the luxury of metaphor to weave its story about coming to terms with the sort of institutional racism millions of Americans experience daily. Heck, it even uses "Harry Potter" as an allegory to symbolize the characters’ loss of innocence at multiple junctures in their tragic lives.
Giving audiences the cheap out of transporting these messages to an almost unbelievable setting would have been too easy, and it would have also been insulting to the IQs of everyone involved with making and viewing this insightful, important film.
"The Hate U Give" can proudly join "Black Panther," "Sorry to Bother You," "Blindspotting," and "BlacKkKlansman" in the pantheon of 2018 films that tackle similar subject matter through very, very different lenses. Most importantly, and like every film in that group, "The Hate U Give" has earned the right to boast that it’s one of the best movies of 2018 so far.
The film follows the same general story as Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel, chronicling the dual lives of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, aka Rue in the first "Hunger Games" film) as both a resident of “ghetto” neighborhood Garden Heights and at her mostly white private school. Her constant inner struggle to fit into both worlds is just as fascinating on screen as it was on the page.
Then, everything changes when Starr becomes the only witness to her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) being gunned down by a cop during a routine traffic stop. The rest of the film involves Starr, her family, and everyone else in her life grappling with their circumstances and desperately trying to the find the light in a seemingly endless sea of hate emanating from all directions.
As adaptations go, "The Hate U Give" is mostly a beat-for-beat recreation of the book with a few notable changes. Certain characters are given less to do in the film, and one subplot is cut out entirely. Most of the changes work to the film’s advantage, though one giant alteration of the film’s climax, though powerful, ends in a less-than-realistic way. Judge for yourself.
Director George Tillman Jr. clearly took the source material and themes from the book seriously, as everything is shot and cut for maximum dramatic effect. One could argue there isn’t much subtlety to the film’s messaging, but it’s also worth remembering that it was conceived as YA fiction. It just happens to have elevated itself a head taller than its form.
Stenberg is a star, plain and simple. She embodies Starr’s conflicts at both her school and neighborhood like a far more experienced actor, and delivers Starr’s climactic speech from the book with so much righteous anger that Oscar voters should keep that scene in mind when casting their ballots.
Also on Oscar-nomination watch should be Russell Hornsby as Starr’s father Maverick Carter, an ex-drug dealer whose only priorities now are protecting his family. He plays Maverick with tenderness at home and an unstable ferocity when his family is threatened, and is at the center of many of the film’s most powerful (and sometimes chilling) moments.
Don’t be surprised if you leave the theater with a few well-earned tears in your eyes. "The Hate U Give" is far from a "This Is Us"-style weepy, but its barrage of scenes revealing systemic oppression and racial injustice should be enough to make anyone with a heart at least a bit emotional.
One of the main through-lines of the film is the concept of THUG LIFE, a theory coined by rapper Tupac Shakur and half the acronym for "The Hate U Give’s" title. In this case, THUG LIFE stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone.” It’s essentially a rallying call to end the cycle of violence stemming from the black community’s historical social marginalization.
"The Hate U Give" is a case study in how the young can internalize the unfairness of the world around them and either choose to carry that with them into adulthood or learn to forgive without ever completely forgetting. It’s an honest, sobering look at a segment of American society usually relegated to the sidelines in both real life and in Hollywood’s depictions of their struggles.
Go see this movie. Its voice is too strong to miss.
Joshua Axelrod (@jaxel222) is a graduate student in Media and Strategic Communications at George Washington University. Previously he was a web producer and pop politics writer for the Washington Examiner.