I saw "The Hate U Give" after a couple of weeks spent revisiting classic silent films made nearly 100 years ago. George Tillman, Jr.'s film, which is based on Angie Thomas' bestselling young adult novel, reminded me of them a little bit. It's at its best channeling work from cinema's earliest era, when films were still disparaged as lowest common denominator entertainment because they put arresting images in service of powerful stories stocked with simple, sturdy characterizations, and always took the direct route when trying to connect with viewers.
It tells the story of Starr Carter (Amandla Sternberg), an African-American private school student. Starr escapes a shooting incident at a party, gets a ride home from a charismatic young drug dealer named Khalil (Algee Smith) that she's known since childhood, and becomes the sole witness to his murder at the hands of a jumpy young white police officer who pulled them over in traffic stop that has all the hallmarks of routine harassment. The traumatized Starr has to decide whether to testify in front of a grand jury. Informing would put her and her family in the crosshairs of a drug dealer named King (Anthony Mackie), who bought her father, an ex-con and former gang member named Maverick (Russell Hornsby), a convenience store as reward for doing three years in prison for King's crimes.
The plot's even more tangled than this synopsis suggests. Starr has a half-brother named Seven (Lamar Johnson), born to a woman that Mav impregnated when he and Starr's mother Lisa (Regina Hall) were separated; this would be irksome enough if Seven's mother hadn't taken up with King. King is so worried that Starr's testimony will incriminate him that he and his goons try to terrorize the Carters to get her to clam up. The movie would fit nicely on a double-bill with "On the Waterfront," another film about the ethics of informing (though one with a more problematic justification) where the story unfolds in a tightly knit community in which many of the key players are related by blood or work and everyone, including the most menacing or antisocial characters, are bound together by religion, politics, and a distrust of the government. Lisa even has a brother on the police force, a patrolman named Carlos (Common) who urges our heroine to tell the authorities what she knows, and asks, "If you can't trust the system, can you at least trust me?", seemingly oblivious to the fact that, when he's wearing a dark blue uniform, that's a distinction without a difference.
As adapted by the late screenwriter Audrey Wells—who died of cancer the day before the film's release—"The Hate U Give" comes on like a basic novel-to-movie adaptation, designed to impress the source material's fans with its faithfulness at the expense of subtlety. Its least effective scenes are overlaid with swaths of narration drawn straight from the book. These are read in a stilted tone, and tend to either duplicate what we can already see or supply facts that could've been conveyed through acting, direction, and expository dialogue. But they're of a piece with the movie's determination to take the most direct route towards explanation and illumination, and paint with a broad brush rather than leave anyone confused about what was intended.
This sounds like condemnation if you haven't seen the movie with a decent sized audience, in which case you'll appreciate how Wells and Tillman manage to keep the viewer emotionally invested at all times while constantly adding layers of information and marginal details that complicate our reactions to the characters. The actors all get at least one big monologue that lets them bring a lifetime of craft to bear on one or two minutes of screen time. The standouts might be Maverick's summation of his belief system, Lisa telling Starr why she decided to stay with Maverick even after he fathered another woman's child, and Carlos admitting, with evident shame, that he'd treat white and black motorists differently in the same situation; but with this many spotlight turns, it's hard to choose.
The film is a primer on systemic racism in the United States, aimed at young people as well as any older relatives who might not have gotten the memo. It embraces the idea that riots are the language of the unheard, inevitable and necessary if the people are being lied to, silenced, or micromanaged by authorities. A climactic clash between heavily armored police and anti-police brutality protesters in their street clothes is shot to evoke news coverage of Ferguson, but also images of sadly similar incidents dating back to the origins of visual media. It's also about how slavery and lynching continued in the United Staes under different labels. Starr's Instagram page juxtaposes recent victims of police brutality with a graphic closeup of Emmett Till's disfigured face, flat-out telling us that when American police kill unarmed black men for no good reason, they're committing acts of racist, vigilante terror, however strenuously they refuse to call them that.
There's a lot of commentary about the way black police officers' loyalties are torn between the community and the department, as well as how tribal reflex ultimately decides the matter of whom to side with in a crisis. Many of the scenes set in Starr's mostly white high school and with her white boyfriend are photographed in sickly blue tones that reflect how she tamps down her cultural identity. Some of these verge on satire, with Starr's white friends helping themselves to African-American music, dance moves and vernacular but retreating behind bromides like "I don't see skin color" when it's time to throw down and prove they're more than cultural tourists on safari.
"The Hate U Give" wants to cover major sociopolitical and historical ground while also succeeding as a three-hanky tragedy, an inspirational coming-of-age story, and a portrait of a community with its own distinct traditions and values, some noble, others self-defeating—all while appealing simultaneously to young fans of Thomas' bestseller and newbies who have no idea what they're about to see, not to mention enough of a demographic cross-section to make the film a mainstream hit. Incredibly, it does all this and more.
I've been watching Tillman's work since "Soul Food," but I didn't know until I looked up his biography recently that he was inspired to become a director after seeing low-budget, predominantly black comedies and melodramas like "Claudine" and "Cooley High" as a '70s child. That he's managed to build a durable career making those kinds of movies at a time when it's hard to get stories about reality into mainstream theaters is remarkable. That this film was released by a major studio and is essentially the story of a young black woman's political radicalization is even more impressive.
And when the film is firing on all cylinders—as in the riot sequence, the political dynamism of which evokes the first Edmund Pettis Bridge scene from "Selma"—it's nearly breathtaking in its sneaky audacity. The signature image in this film is a teenage black girl finding her inner revolutionary by chastising riot police through a bullhorn, then seizing a tear gas canister that they fired at her fellow protesters and lobbing it back at them. Maverick even draws an extended analogy between gang warfare and the rival houses in the Harry Potter books. If you somehow fused one of those earnest and didactic 1970s ABC Afterschool Specials with James Baldwin's "Go Tell it on the Mountain" and "Battleship Potemkin," the result might look something like this.