Amandla Stenberg takes on the lead role and more than lives up to the challenge in this adaptation of Angie Thomas’s incendiary YA novel that explores living with the tragedies of police brutality in modern day America. Funny, furious and thought provoking in equal measures, ‘The Hate U Give’ is a rare film that explores a topical and current issue with nuance and bravery.
Despite her star-making role in The Hunger Games back in 2012, actress Amandla Stenberg hasn’t often been offered the meaty, extensive range of leading roles she deserved based on her early promise (this year’s YA fantasy adaptation of The Darkest Minds withstanding). But based on her work in this film, all that could be about to change.
Stenberg plays 16-year-old Starr (with two Rs, as she very deliberately makes clear), the wiser-than-her-years narrator whose coming of age we witness against a backdrop of violence, institutional racism and identity crises.
Starr lives something of a double life – by day she’s a student at a wealthy prep school, where her friends and boyfriend (Riverdale’s K.J. Apa) are affluent and almost exclusively white. But it’s a world away from her personal life, living in a neighbourhood that is predominantly black, and hanging out with friend Kenya (The Deuce’s Dominique Fishback).
But it’s not long before the walls separating these two worlds are brought down, when an innocent car journey with old flame Khalil (Detroit’s Algee Smith) spirals into a living nightmare. It marks the end of Starr’s innocence, but also the beginning of a new chapter in which all the simmering tensions lurking beneath the surface of her life are brought fully to the surface.
The YA genre is often unfairly labelled as being frothy or escapist (as if there’s something wrong with those things), but The Hate U Give is in any case the perfect example of how wrong this view is. At once deeply personal and proudly political, it’s far weightier and more complex than much of the Hollywood fare that’s targeted at adults. While the grown-ups in the film view the central incident of police violence through the lens of career prospects, media perception and the ‘war on drugs’, Starr is unflinching in exploring topics like white privilege, false allies, micro-aggressions and the unspoken rules around snitching, all with the acerbic, unvarnished frankness that only teenagers can muster.
It’s this respect for the intelligence and creativity of its young target audience that really leaves its mark, as not only Starr but her young peers and boyfriend Chris grapple with the legacy of racial inequality and social injustice that they have inherited. It all leads to an edge-of-your-seat climax that is at once shocking and yet inevitable, the only conclusion that could have occurred after the initial tragedy that sets everything in motion.
And yet there are moments of great warmth and humour throughout, much of it anchored in Starr’s family, led by her loving but conflicted parents (played admirably by Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall). Hornsby in particular is responsible for some of the film’s most laugh-out-loud and tearjerker scenes as Starr’s protective and long-suffering father, who is presented not simply as a stock character but rather a complex man doing his best in a murky and unforgiving world.
Running at just over the 2-hour mark, The Hate U Give is a bold and entertaining film that is frequently surprising. There was a great deal of expectation from fans of the novel, and from viewers looking for a truthful depiction of the issues at hand. At its packed screening at the London Film Festival, the audience erupted into applause as the credits rolled, as strong a sign as any that a film has delivered on its promise.
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Crime, Drama | USA, 2018 | 12A | 22nd October 2018 (UK) | 20th Century Fox Pictures | Dir.George Tilman Jr | Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Common