The late rapper Tupac Shakur only saw 25 birthdays. However, during his short life, he came to understand the black experience in America, which he summed up as T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E, meaning, “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody.” This haunting perspective would influence Angie Thomas’ award-winning novel The Hate U Give, which is now a feature film.
Helmed by veteran director George Tillman Jr., Amandla Stenberg brings Thomas’ Starr to life in a heartbreaking and impactful portrayal that will surely shut down the naysayers who questioned her casting. At 16, Starr has many interests—she’s a sneakerhead, a starter on her school’s basketball team and an active member of her community, where her father Maverick (an outstanding Russell Hornsby) owns a corner store. However, in addition to the burdens of being a teen, Starr has trained herself to exist in between two worlds. She’s continuously code-switching and navigating her way through her white, upper-class prep school and the streets where she was raised.
Though she’s mastered being both versions of herself, Starr’s world shatters when she witnesses her childhood best friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), be gunned down by the police during a traffic stop. Though his character is killed not even 30 minutes into the film, Smith’s endlessly charismatic Khalil allows Starr to be her true self. In his presence, she no longer has to walk a tightrope between two worlds. The banter between Smith and Stenberg—though brief—was the stuff of which teenage love affairs are made. In the aftermath of Khalil’s murder, Starr must grapple with remaining silent. It’s something her loving but fearlessly protective mother, Lisa (Regina Hall), begs Starr to make a choice about: bear with the quiet or use her voice to speak for her fallen friend.
Despite Thomas’ strong material, The Hate U Give could have easily slipped into a sanitized, Hollywood version of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though the film does run a few paces longer than it needed to, Tillman allows his actors and Thomas’ words to ignite and elevate this story for the big screen, and the result is astounding. Not only does Stenberg give an incredible performance, but the supporting cast is also marvelous. Hall is stellar, as always, but it’s Hornsby’s Maverick, the family’s generous but hardened patriarch, who is the standout in this film. From giving the black “talk” to his kids before they reach middle school age and demanding that everyone in the household learn the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program, he shines. The Fences actor is so arresting that it wouldn’t be a surprise if his name popped up during awards season. Additional anchors in the story include Issa Rae (in her first feature film role) as April Ofrah, a lawyer and activist who mentors Starr; rising star Dominique Fishback as Kenya, Starr’s pseudo-stepsister; and a menacing Anthony Mackie as King, Maverick’s old friend. No single character in The Hate U Give serves as filler; they all bring depth to Starr’s world and family dynamic.
When we consider films that depict black people in the inner-city from the ’90s onward or even the stories that we see on the evening news about young people of color being murdered or brutally attacked by law enforcement figures, they are often black males. With The Hate U Give, Thomas and Tillman offer a different and more nuanced perspective, not just of Starr but an entire community on the verge of destruction from constant predation.
Much more than a simple commentary on race, class and police brutality, The Hate U Give is a standout film because it focuses on black female empowerment. Emboldened by her father’s strength and words, her parent’s love story, her childhood friends and the injustices she witnesses, Starr learns that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission to speak her truth; she’s had the words all along.
The Hate U Give premiered Friday, September 7, 2018, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will debut in theaters October 19, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.