How Amandla Stenberg’s new movie gets the current political climate spot on
By the time you reach the latter half of The Hate U Give, you’ll be terrified of laughing at the funny bits. It’s not often that a film takes you on a journey where you traverse moments of warmth and humour – and then, just when you feel safe, are met with very real pain and terror.
The film, adapted from the young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, adopts a dysphemistic approach, opting to tackle the sobering reality of race relations head-on. In the first scene, the camera pans through a classic all-American bustling street. A group of children play with a ball in the middle of the road outside, when viewers’ attentions are averted through the window of a pastel yellow-painted, colonial-style home, complete with a porch and pillars. In the dining room, a father is having “the talk”. Placing his hands on the table, he demonstrates to his young children how they should act when they see police. As they stare up at him with their hands on the table, the moment marks a severing of their innocence. They’re visibly scared, but he does it for their safety, and although it means the film starts off on a sour note, it's an intentional cue. This is not a film that will shy away from uncomfortable moments.
THUG puts the Black Lives Matter era on screen. In a difficult balancing act, it manages to have a message without coming off as preachy, and features black pain as a means of stirring collective action rather than just using it as a shocking spectacle. Amandla Stenberg leads the film with her goosebump-inducing portrayal of the protagonist, Starr. Her life is changed forever (and viewers are left paralysed) when Khalil, her childhood crush, is shot in front of her by police for being armed with little more than a hairbrush. Aside from being a gut-wrenching and all-too-familiar scene, this marks the moment where it becomes harder and harder for Starr to keep her worlds separate. The movie follows Starr as she questions how she could endure a very public fight for justice and maintain her palatable blackness at school, once her classmates know that she comes from a place where her friends get shot either by gangs or police – and that she’s witnessed both.
Despite the initial controversy over the fact that filmmakers opted for a light-skinned lead, Stenberg is a perfect fit in the role, and doesn’t water down the protagonist’s experiences. Starr’s world is full of contradictions; she doesn’t quite feel comfortable anywhere. Away from her Black Panther father’s strict teachings around black empowerment and pride, she spends most of her life avoiding slang around her privileged white friends, who speak with blaccents for fun, in case they think she is too ghetto for her Williamson private school. Out of fear of being judged, Starr chooses to hide her white boyfriend Chris from her childhood friends, in case her interracial relationship makes them think she’s abandoning her blackness altogether. As she says in the back of her boyfriend’s limo at prom: “When I’m at home, I can’t act too Williamson; when I’m here, I can’t act too (troubled neighbourhood) Garden Heights.”
Every black person watching the film will identify with Starr’s code-switching. If we’re being honest, most black people have done it – whether that’s when navigating super white spaces at work, or even when trying to fit in to predominantly black ones. There’s always an expectation of what black people should be, and some situations require you to fit that mould, or diverge entirely.
On top of that personal balancing act, there’s the political climate we’re living in, which pressures people to be one thing or another. Right now is a time of extreme polarisation, where sometimes the nuances that make us who we are can be erased. Nowhere is this highlighted more clearly than in the story of Kahlil. In the film, we see his sweet demeanour, his style, and his penchant for 90s rap and the beliefs of Tupac – which is where the film and book get its title. (THUG LIFE stands for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.) Once he is killed by police, media outlets and white onlookers reduce his character to nothing more than a drug dealer.
Russell Hornsby, who portrays Starr’s father Maverick, is another example of a multi-faceted black character in the film, as he portrays a much-needed black male role model – something that has been lacking in the mainstream. He isn’t portrayed as a gun-toting, white-hating extremist as so many Panthers on film usually are. Think back to the awkward party in Forrest Gump, when the Panthers aggressively scream in Gump’s his ear about “pigs” and “the white man” while Jenny has a bust-up with her boyfriend. Starr’s father, by contrast, is a calming and protective influence. Not often do you get a film that is brave enough to show the community and family-centred nature of the Black Panthers.
“This is not a film that will shy away from uncomfortable moments”
The last couple of years in cinema have been marked by films that addressed the lack of positive representations of black people in film by turning the conversation on its head entirely, and deriding white characters. There was the white family in Get Out; the colonisers in Black Panther; the inappropriate white friend in Girls Trip. In THUG, the white characters are complicated – mostly, their narratives serves as a guide to how (and how not) to be a good asset to the Black Lives Matter movement when you’re not black. Starr’s sneaker-wearing, arrhythmic boyfriend is cringe-worthy when he dances to rap, but his willingness to learn how to be a good ally is wholly positive.
The source of much of the comedy is Starr’s oblivious best friend Hailey, who loves her proximity to blackness until it's time to engage with what Black Lives Matter really means. For example, she feels like sharing pictures of Emmett Till on Tumblr is a bit much, and she makes it clear she has little sympathy for drug dealers that get shot. Increasingly, it becomes clear to Starr that they can only hang out when she reduces herself, which might hit home for a lot of people that have had to cut out problematic white pals.
The Hate U Give gets the current political climate right because it doesn’t rely on tropes; instead, it bravely opts to explore the complex and multi-faceted aspects of black, American identity. Starr’s Uncle Carlos (played by Common) is a respected police officer in the force and community, but he has faith in the system. Late in the film, he admits to Starr that even he feels nervous dealing with young black males during arrests, and would be more likely to shoot. It’s painful not just because he’s a father figure, but because again the filmmakers are forcing us to face some ugly truths about systemic racism. (A point which feels even more pertinent after the recent viral video of black Baltimore officer Arthur Williams repeatedly punching a black man.)
Kahlil’s story doesn’t get a happy ending, because this film doesn’t try to gloss over grim realities. Although fictional, so many of the film’s scenes could be documentary footage from Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore the following year, or the Baton Rouge unrest the year after that. As a viewer, you also see that when it comes to racial justice, it’s not as clear as being for and against, or black and white. We learn to understand that some heroes are flawed – its realism lies in the nuance of even its villains.
THUG gives us a fictional story we can use to process real-life events. It’s a coming-of-age tale that matters because the protagonist learns to use her voice despite the barriers she faces – and they’re barriers that many other black viewers will recognise. The Hate U Give is vital because it isn’t just about Starr finding her place in the world; it’s about giving young people the tools to understand how they can resist, too.