Being a child is a privilege of sorts — typically, it allows nonchalance and requires very little worry. For Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), however, her childhood circumstances insist that she know her rights, know her worth. Starr does not have the privilege of being a child.
“The Hate U Give” opens with the very moment when Starr’s childhood escapes her. Three wide-eyed, slightly nervous children are sitting at a table with their parents, listening intently to their father as he explains to them why it is important to be well-versed with the legal system — because it is vital for them to know when they are being ill-treated. The scene’s dialogue, acting, and especially the camera movement grab the audience’s full attention, causing them to plunge into the life of Carter, the film’s narrator.
“The Hate U Give” traces the story of 16-year-old Starr, who essentially lives two different lives. At home in Garden Heights, a predominantly Black and mostly poor neighborhood, she embraces her Blackness. At school, among a significantly whiter and wealthier community, she hides her roots to bring as little attention to her racial identity as possible.
The first portrayal of Garden Heights is accompanied by slow, beautiful camera movements — it is pictured as quaint and serene. But not every aspect of the neighborhood is being revealed to the audience. On the other hand, Williamson Prep, her high school, is depicted like another world altogether — concrete and monotonous, with cookie-cutter students.
The movie really starts at a party that Starr attends in Garden Heights. There, she sees her childhood best friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), who gets pulled over on their drive back home. She witnesses the shooting of Khalil and for a while, she doesn’t know how to process what she saw. She understands how different the situation might have been if she and Khalil were white, but finds it hard to comprehend why this difference exists in the first place.
Stenberg’s performance is captivating in the scene in which she is being questioned by private investigators in a police station right after she witnesses Khalil’s shooting. She is raw and presents a sense of pain so tangible that the audience is stunned by her execution. Her acting in this scene works to further emphasize the absurdity of the legal process when it comes to minority groups and in particular, with regard to Black people.
It is heartbreaking to see the types of experiences that tie together the members of the Garden Heights community. In one scene, Starr wakes up from a nightmare about Khalil’s murder, only to find her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), by her bedside, holding a container for her to vomit into. “Nightmares are always the worst right after,” he knowingly tells her.
Toward the end, the film introduces a metaphor about weapons, as Starr comes to realize the value of a loudspeaker versus a gun. At the final protest depicted on screen, she uses a loudspeaker to voice her experience and her opinion but is ignored by police, who retaliate against the protesters. The event pushes Starr to question why she is fighting in the first place if her voice will eventually be drowned out by the sounds of sobbing and the haze of tear gas.
The movie would not have been as powerful if it not for its end. Starr, her family, and gang leader King (Anthony Mackie) stand in complete and utter stupor as Starr’s little brother, Sekani (TJ Wright), points a gun at a police officer who was about to interject in what would’ve been a violent fight between King and Maverick. This scene references what Khalil and Starr discussed on their drive home from the party — T.H.U.G L.I.F.E, an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants, F*** Everybody,” as first explained by rapper Tupac Shakur. Watching Tupac’s definition be executed is petrifying. The audience is given time to absorb the completely unanticipated situation presented to them, before Starr steps in to provide a solution — she places herself in front of her little brother with her hands up. The rest follow suit — hands up, don’t shoot. The film doesn’t just leave the audience with a situation to think about, but also advances a possible solution — an immensely urgent aspect of the film that holds its viewers accountable.
Anoushka Agrawal covers film. Contact her at [email protected].