All movies are political. Not every movie is about politics, but all movies are political. It’s unavoidable. When humans make movies, their ideological frameworks are built into the worlds they craft around their stories. Political views manifest in everything from character choices to camera angles. What differs between movies is how clearly they play their political hand—“The Hate U Give”, for example, is proud to be a protest.
The movie is based on last year’s novel of the same name, which took its title from a tattoo on Tupac Shakur’s stomach. According to ‘Pac, his THUG LIFE tattoo stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody”. It’s an indictment of racism as a system: when people experience oppression and marginalization as kids, they’ll want to fight back as adults, but the oppressors will just use that righteous anger as justification for keeping the racist cycle in place. “The Hate U Give” inspects multiple parts of this cycle, but it zeroes in on a specific kind of hate: police brutality.
The movie’s protagonist is Starr Carter, who feels caught between the two worlds of her everyday life. She lives with an activist family in a predominantly black neighborhood but attends a largely white private school with classmates who don’t care about social issues. Her father, portrayed with resolve and vigor by Russell Hornsby, raised (and named) her to shine light into the darkest situations. But Starr sees her life in shades of perennial grey—until a cop murders her childhood friend Khalil before her very eyes.
Khalil’s death throws Starr into a series of tough positions: her father wants her to publicly condemn police brutality, but her mother prefers that she stay quiet and remain safe; Starr’s private school classmates start talking about Khalil in insensitive ways, but she’s afraid to speak up and alienate friends; the leader of Khalil’s former gang threatens Starr to prevent her from giving up his name. During a time when the privileged get to mourn, Starr realizes that she’ll become a symbol no matter what route she takes. Her only choice is whether to represent inaction or revolution.
“The Hate U Give” is strongest when its sights are set on Starr. Her newfound responsibility—and the unfairness of the system that places it on her shoulders—makes for a compelling character arc. It’s grow or die for Starr and her community, and after she sees how easily death is dealt out, she chooses the fight for racial justice with all its growing pains. Amandla Stenberg catapults Starr’s inner turmoil on screen, living up to her character’s name with a performance of wounded strength. She’s the shining centerpiece of the movie.
Endeavors to summate systemic racism are not so bright. “The Hate U Give” tries to encapsulate the epidemic of police brutality in the runtime of a single movie, and the results tend toward diminutive. Take Khalil’s character: he’s only on screen for a few minutes before he’s shot to death, and if this were a war film, he’d have shown off a picture of his wife back home first. Some of his last words are clumsy foreshadowing that his life is coming to an end. From a screenwriting standpoint, Khalil only exists to die, which feels incongruent with the movie’s Black Lives Matter message. The death of an innocent black man at the hands of police deserves the ruminative structure of a character study like “Fruitvale Station”.
But “The Hate U Give” bites off more sociopolitical topics than it can chew, and too many subjects end up underdeveloped. Starr’s white boyfriend goes from “I don’t see color” to full-on ally over the course of one conversation. The movie ends like an episode of a TV show—there’s no problem so dire that a happy finale can’t smooth it over! “The Hate U Give” has its heart in the right place, but its execution is an uneven and unrealistic beat.
Sometimes its heart is enough: it’s distinctive to have a mainstream movie shed a positive light on the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program. That’s especially brave for an adaption of a young adult novel. Given such a target audience, “The Hate U Give” never needed to be the most mature or complex take on systemic racism—but a little more nuance would’ve gone a long way.