Actors of ‘The Hate U Give’ speak on importance of drawing from own experiences

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Amandla Stenberg, who plays the lead character, Starr, in “The Hate U Give,” Russell Hornsby, who plays her father, Maverick, and director George Tillman Jr. sat next to each other. The comfort of the three members of the movie was palpable. Watching them be at home with each other justified the incredibly powerful relationship that Starr and Maverick share in the film — a bond that goes beyond Tillman Jr.’s great direction.

Maverick and Starr are multifaceted characters, and, according to Hornsby, a result of more than just pure talent.

“There are a number of actors who possess the talent, but I think very few who possess the humanity and spirit that these roles encompass,” Hornsby said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

It was heartening to see the credit Stenberg and Hornsby gave one another: “I’m going to have to commend Amandla for just being open and listening. At times, I can give unsolicited advice,” Hornsby said, laughing. “She embraced it. That’s rare.”

Conversely, Stenberg didn’t shy away from discussing how much she valued the mentorship Hornsby provided: “(His mentorship) led to … our relationship paralleling that of Starr and Mav’s. That’s what really held me down throughout the filming process … and ensured that I was telling the truth with my performance, that I was honouring the material, that the place I was coming from was deep and grounded, as opposed to just surface.”

Starr and Maverick’s relationship onscreen ranges from being stringent to unabashedly friendly, yet it is always nurturing. Stenberg’s own experience growing up was similar to this one. “I think that an inherent part of Black parenthood is having to balance the militant aspect of it, because you have to protect your Black child who is entering a world that is inherently violent towards them, and then (you have to be) a nurturer and (allow) them to feel emotion and (be) there for them as they practice that,” Stenberg said. “That’s something I’ve experienced with my mom — that balance of sternness and whipping me into shape because she knows what I’m going through, but also recognizing that I am vulnerable, and it’s OK to be, at moments.”

Stenberg stressed the power in Maverick constantly questioning Starr, pushing her to formulate her opinions and thoughts about the world. Hornsby, too, thinks the conflicting aspects of his upbringing go hand in hand: “That’s often what happens in a Black community and Black family — we have to push our kids out and tell them that they’re ready. The nurturing part is a part of the rearing. … You can’t have one without the other,” he explained.

In addition to their experiences growing up, Stenberg and Hornsby had the book by Angie Thomas on which the movie is based. This changed how Stenberg and Hornsby approached their roles, and Tillman, his direction.

“This process was very rich because we had the book, so I think I was technically prepared for this role for a year before we even headed into production. … I was thinking about the script and reading it and processing it,” Stenberg said.

Tillman, however, acknowledged the importance of his role to translate the way the story is presented in the book onto the screen: “When you read the book … there’s drama there, but you have to put it into active behavior. That’s how I like to work as a director,” Tillman said. “A lot of (my job) was just about making sure what was beautiful on (the) page has movement (in the film).”

When asked about the impact they wanted the movie to have on its audience, Stenberg said it depended on the person watching and the kinds of experiences they’ve had.

“I hope that this specifically acts as a place for Black communities to grieve, to feel seen and heard, to feel honored, to honor and process their own experiences and their own feeling, because we don’t always get to do that as Black communities — we’re always pushing through persecution,” Stenberg said.

She continued: “In terms of how it impacts film and Hollywood, I hope that it further validates the notion that our stories are vivid and colorful and worthy of being told, and when you give us room to express our own stories, we create something that is truthful.”

Anoushka Agrawal covers film. Contact her at [email protected].