Following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this year, several cultural commentators remarked that the bravery of the survivors in challenging the political powers that be should be expected of a generation weaned on dystopian YA fiction. In Susanne Collins’ widely popular Hunger Games trilogy, for example, children forced into a violent reality TV competition end up using their celebrity status to fight back against the oppression of a poverty stricken society. When raised on these narratives, it’s no wonder the Parkland teens knew how to make such an impact across America, to the sheer confusion of politicians across the country.
Judging by the current crop of YA novels, expect the political awakening of the next generation to be more direct, with commentary on the state of society no longer hidden by science fiction allegories. Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel The Hate U Give became a smash hit, spending 50 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and even bagging the debutant author a plethora of awards in the process. It’s a mainstream success that has led to a major studio producing this adaptation - and quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine any studio daring to tackle the topic of racially motivated shootings by the police at any other moment in time, let alone in a teen-friendly and unambiguously mainstream fashion.
The issues in The Hate U Give have been shamefully relevant for years, but as today’s teens are becoming increasingly passionate about social justice, director George Tillman Jr.’s film should hopefully generate more discussions about the societal injustices we see ripped from American headlines on a near-daily basis. Don’t expect a subtle examination of these issues either. This is an angry and very frequently melodramatic film, but when it’s made with such a passion for changing hearts and minds, its unashamedly mainstream nature is much more of an asset than a flaw.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives two lives; by day, she attends a predominantly white, affluent high school, while by night, she lives with her family in a poorer, African-American neighbourhood elsewhere in town. Her family enrolled her in the school so she could have a chance to succeed in life, and stand a chance of escaping the town, but Starr goes one step further - she mutes her own personality near friends (and her own white boyfriend) out of a worry she’ll be perceived as being the “poor, black girl” if she does as little as using the same slang terms her classmates have appropriated.
One weekend, while attending a party in her neighbourhood, a confrontation breaks out and her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) hastily decides to drive her home. On the way back, a policeman pulls over the vehicle for a minor driving offence, ordering Khalil to stand next to the car - but upon reaching for a hairbrush, he’s shot three times by the officer, assuming he was reaching for a weapon. With her childhood friend now dead, and the officer looking to escape the justice he deserves, Starr is put in an awkward position. Does she publicly speak out as the only witness to the murder, or does she stay silent so as to not out herself to her peers at school, who she believes will view her as a charity case if they discover the tragedy she’s endured?
The Hate U Give operates fantastically as a character study of a girl avoiding the spotlight tragedy has thrust upon her, and the trials and tribulations of the caring family around her. However, the film’s few faults stem from an unnecessary subplot that heightens the dramatic stakes, but doesn’t feel vital considering the harrowing story at the centre. Anthony Mackie plays a drug dealer, King, who had previously given Starr’s father (Russell Hornsby) work due to the lack of job opportunities in the neighbourhood, and had even hired Khalil prior to his death. The “lack of job opportunities” angle would help this feel of a piece with the socio-political issues elsewhere, but unfortunately, this subplot is only used to heighten the stakes of an already tense drama, instead of further the cultural commentary. It’s telling that I only felt the extensive 130 minute running time whenever this subplot returned to the screen, feeling like a forced narrative construct when contrasted with the keenly observed story at the centre.
I won’t try to use my words to do justice to the issues explored here, especially as I’m unable to offer a perspective that could offer a substantial insight. Instead, I’ll point you in the direction of the various POC critics who have analysed the film in depth, and simply say that The Hate U Give comes with a strong recommendation from this critic.