The movies have long lied that an impassioned speech can change everything. George Tillman Jr.’s fierce, clear-eyed The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas’ acclaimed young adult novel, surges toward a climactic Hollywood monologue as its hero, 16-year-old Starr (Amandla Stenberg), finds her voice and dares to speak truth to power. Starr witnessed a white cop gunning down her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), the latest of far too many unarmed black men to suffer such a fate. Her father (Russell Hornsby) has urged her to tell her truth, to let her light shine, one of many urgent lessons he’s taught her and her half brother, Seven (Lamar Johnson). The first of these we see, in the film’s potent opening scene, concerns how to demonstrate a nonthreatening obedience to police. But Starr still is scared, for many reasons, most more complex than studio movies usually bother with. When events push her at last to seize a literal megaphone, to share her anger and pain with the world, the world responds as it might in real life. All the troubles around her just keep getting worse.
Something crucial is changed, though: Starr herself — and quite possibly young viewers (and readers) stirred by her story. The Hate U Give doesn’t promise that a speech can triumph over systemic injustice. Instead, it suggests with all the persuasive power of storytelling, that finding it within yourself to speak hard truths is only the beginning. Starr learns, over the course of the film and book, that fighting for change demands a lifetime commitment.
Starr’s life, like any of ours, bustles with more people and incidents and conflicting impulses than a traditional movie can hold. Both Thomas’ book and Tillman’s film honor that. Both also dare to go on a while. The film runs 132 minutes, but everything in it is vital. If anything, another 15 minutes might have fleshed out key relationships and clarified some rushed plot points. While Starr lives in a mostly black neighborhood, she attends Williamson, a mostly white private school, where she finds it imperative never to appear ghetto, avoiding all slang even when the white kids she’s befriended talk about her kicks or her boo. The Hate U Give takes time to focus on the nuances of Starr’s life, on the ways Williamson has split her consciousness, on the effort of code-switching, on the layers of self that Starr must sort through in everyday interactions. The film digs into a family life of uncles and half-brothers, on the backstories and hard choices Starr’s parents have made (Regina Hall is movingly worried as the mother), on local gang politics and the ethics of snitching, on the pressures that turn some kids to crime, on friends from the neighborhood and from posh Williamson, on going to prom with a sweet but goony white boy who is played by the same actor starring as this generation’s Archie Andrews (Riverdale’s KJ Apa.)
Stenberg, too, has played a role of great pop-cultural resonance. She was Rue, the young girl whose death in the first Hunger Games hardens Katniss’ resolve to burn down a tyranny. The Hate U Give applies YA outrage to the world we actually live in, the dystopia so many won’t acknowledge. Here, she’s believable and affecting as a young woman discovering not just her own strength but also who she is. As Starr shifts between the house parties and protests of her neighborhood to the mansions of Williamson, we see the gears grind in her head — and we see that grinding wear her down, especially once the shooting of Khalil incites outrage in the streets. “His life matters, too,” white girl Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) says to Starr, speaking of the cop who pumped bullets into the first boy Starr ever kissed.
The plotting demands that Starr slowly take everything in, surveying both of her worlds before taking significant action. That’s unusual in studio filmmaking, which has long emphasized a heroic decisiveness in its protagonists — “I volunteer as tribute!” cries Katniss. Stenberg, in a star-making turn, makes Starr’s education in outrage more compelling than the usual action-figure ass-kicking that we see from movie heroes. She bears witness to what’s wrong with this world, weighs the cost of standing up to it, and then finds the courage to do so, both in private and public. At each step, Stenberg reveals the pain and promise of committing oneself to ideals.
Stenberg shoulders almost every scene. Some of the strongest concern everyday stuff: Starr asking hard questions of her mother, discussing Tupac and Harry Potter with Starr’s friends or trying to work out whether a boy who wants to kiss her deserves a chance. Her smiles have a carefree recklessness, while her fear and anger prove elemental. Perhaps the best-directed scene comes early. The cop has pulled over Khalil and Starr after a party. Breathless, terrified, Starr implores Khalil to spread his hands out on the dashboard, to obey the cop’s commands, to swallow his pride and not talk back. She’s raw and wrecked, desperate and momentous. Meanwhile, Tillman and cinematographer Mihai M'laimare Jr. shoot the incident from inside the car, the cop reduced to a flashlight, a glimpse of badge and a voice of authority. It’s an experience many of the millions who might see this film will never face themselves, but The Hate U Give places you in the front seats with Starr, as she does everything possible to prevent the worst from happening. A speech might not lead to change, but empathy for the lives of others? That could.