Since the mega success of 1997’s Soul Food, director George Tillman Jr. has been telling stories that enable people to deeply examine their own lives and their connections with others. He's directed Notorious and The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, and he’s also worked diligently as a producer films like Mudbound and the Barbershop franchise. Now the prolific filmmaker is bringing Angie Thomas’ stunning novel The Hate U Give to the big screen. The narrative centers around Black teenager Starr Carter, and her experiences participating in activism paralleling the Black Lives Matter movement.
Following the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Shadow and Act sat down to chat with Tillman about why this was a story he felt compelled to tell, and what he’s uncovered over the course of his career. For Tillman, the entry point into Starr’s world was first sparked by Thomas’ novel.
"When the book came to me it wasn't published," Tillman told Shadow and Act. "Angie was still in the process of editing the book. I got it really early — in January 2016. I was working with Cheo Hodari Coker, who I did Notorious with. He wanted me to do an episode [of Luke Cage]. I went out to Brooklyn, and the book came to me in my second week of shooting."
"I didn't have a lot of time, but I did read the first chapter," he said. "The first chapter starts off at the party where Starr's hanging out. She says, 'I don't know if I'm supposed to be at this party.' She was uncomfortable, and I thought, 'Wow, I’ve never seen a story about a young 16-year-old, African American dealing with identity issues.'"
"As I kept reading it, the dialogue and the language reminded me of a party I went to years ago in my high school times, and a shooting happened," Tillman recalled. "The way (Angie) caught that, and the themes — I was just blown away. I had to get on the phone with her right away. We talked maybe two weeks after that. We went through how I saw the movie, the important characters, the voice, the theme. We completely connected. Then I was able to sell it to Fox at that point."
Once 20th Century Fox gave Tillman the greenlight, his next feat was building out the cast. He already had a clear vision of what he wanted in his head.
"It was instinctive," Tillman said. "Amandla (Stenberg) was reading the book the same time I was. She and I felt this was something that we could partner up on. When I met her, I felt like she was the one. I never looked at anybody else for the role, because it felt like at 19 reading an unpublished book on her own — how many other actresses or actors are looking for their own material at that age?"
Tillman also felt Stenberg could personally relate to the role.
"She grew up in Inglewood, and she went to a white private school and dealt with this identity issue," Tillman said. "She was already an activist and she was already a talented actress. I felt like her best work was yet to come, so she became my partner early on."
[caption id="attachment_307272" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Amandla Stenberg and Lamar Johnson in 20th Century Fox’s The Hate U Give. Photo Credit: Erika Doss.[/caption]
The community of folks who surrounded Starr, her parents Mav and Lisa Carter, in particular, were vital components of Tillman's vision. For these characters, he called on veteran actors Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall.
"I always wanted to work with Regina, because I thought she was so versatile. She actually auditioned for Notorious. She auditioned for Lil' Kim. My wife has me keep all my auditions over the years. [Regina’s] audition for Kim was amazing, but I went in a different direction. I always looked at her like, 'Damn, that audition was amazing,'" Tillman said.
"So when it came to this script — she was in Barbershop: The Next Cut, which I was producing — I sent The Hate U Give to her assistant at that the time. But the assistant never gave her the book. When we finally got the movie going I re-approached that situation," he said.
"Russell — I saw him in a short film years ago. He has always done great work. Every time you see him, he's just so committed," Tillman said. "I saw him at this luncheon buffet at the Four Seasons. I came up to him and approached him. I said, 'We gonna do something together.' He's like, 'Yeah, I'm looking forward to that.' This was the right project."
Of all of the characters in Tillman’s powerhouse cast for The Hate U Give, casting Khalil – Starr’s friend, who is murdered at the hands of the police, was the most significant piece of the puzzle.
"I saw (Algee Smith) in The New Edition Story. He was just like Ralph (Tresvant) in that. So I'm like, 'This guy's great!'" Tillman recalled. "His agent kept calling me saying, 'Just give him the role.' I was like, 'No, Algee’s gotta come in here because he needs to read.' He came in and he was the guy — he's so charismatic. Then Amandla saw his audition, and she just started smiling. I never even put them in a room together, because I just knew they already had it together."
"It was all very instinctive," Tillman said in regards to the actor's creative chemistry and Stenberg's portrayal of Starr, in particular. "Like Issa Rae — I’d seen Insecure which is just amazing — I thought 'she represents what a lot of young women want to be.' I figured that Starr would relate to that."
"There were a lot of different people that brought different elements. I felt we got the right cast together," he continued."Fox never once said, 'You gotta go out and get the biggest actor.' It was all about what is right for the role. I think the book's success helped us with that."
With the relentlessness of police brutality on unarmed, Black bodies, we were interested in knowing why Tillman was so adamant that of all possible stories related to this issue, that The Hate U Give receives the big-screen treatment.
"We just don't see the perspective of a 16-year-old girl, who goes through this journey," he articulated. "I never wanted to make a young adult movie. I wanted to make a serious film with adult issues that just happened to have a young protagonist."
"I was very proud that this was a film from Starr's perspective, because I'd just never seen that or experienced that," Tillman continued. "There's a moment in the film that I love that really shows that. Starr and Khalil are sitting in the car, and Khalil reaches over and kisses her for the first time. We extended it a little bit because I felt like this was a young girl who's representing two different worlds, and she has two different young boys in her life. We just haven't seen that [on screen] before."
"I also wanted to examine what we do, when we see these things on the news," Tillman said. "What do people's family members go through? What do husbands and wives go through? We never really experience that. I felt it was an eye-opener for me, when we reached out to Eric Garner and Sandra Bland's family to get the rights and pictures. I felt like it was imperative for people to have an understanding that lives get challenged and changed."
[caption id="attachment_307273" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Amandla Stenberg and Algee Smith in 20th Century Fox’s The Hate U Give. Photo Credit: Erika Doss.[/caption]
Tillman also wanted to make sure that the character of Starr had a strong support system around her, when it came to processing her emotions — especially anger — and eventually healing.
"I thought that was very pivotal, because I grew up in a two-parent household," Tillman explained. "The father figure was significant in my life, and I felt like when we look at the male/female relationship between Black men and Black women in film, you never really get the whole perspective. In the early part of the movie when we see Mav and Lisa, he kisses her, and you get a sense that they're very sexual and sensual with one another. They actually talk about it in front of their kids," he said.
"These are two people that still like each other and still have an attraction for each other, but they have conflicts as well. She wants to move," Tillman said, elaborating further on the dynamic between characters Mav and Lisa. "He wants to stay in the neighborhood — it’s a full-fledged relationship. They are two individuals who have been challenged in the past, but want to continue to do better for their kids."
The chemistry and ease between Hornsby and Hall came from their long history of knowing each other and working for the same agency. Similarly, Tillman brought his own history to the making of this film.
"With The Hate U Give, I didn't reference any other movies that much," he said. "I watched a lot of the Baltimore, Ferguson, and Charlotte footage — a lot of those uprisings, just talking to families who had been through this situation. It was all because I lived it as an African American man and seeing racism. It felt like it just came out naturally."
"My whole cast did the same thing," he continued. "If they wanted to do another take it was, 'George, let me do that again,' or, 'George you want to do that again? Because we want to be a little more honest.' This was the first time it was all from gut, and all from instinct, and all from the heart, because we loved the book so much. It was one of the first times since 20 years ago [with Soul Food]that I'd done that."
With the slew of films he’s both directed and produced along with episodes of This Is Us, Power and Luke Cage in his filmography, Tillman’s vision is limitless. After the frenzy surrounding The Hate U Give winds down, he’ll be on to his next project.
"I want to continue to tell honest stories," he emphasized. "I think television is the next place, and I want to do more of it," he said.
"Feature films — I don't necessarily want to just do anything anymore. If I don't feel it. I will just produce it. There's no need to just go out just to keep working. I want to keep finding honest stories that hit me in my gut. That's when it feels right.”
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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.