TORONTO – The Young Adult drama is in a strange place these days. After something of a comeback with the serious blockbusters “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014) and “Paper Towns” (2015), the genre has gone in a somewhat lighter direction this past year with “Love, Simon” and Netflix’s star-making “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Now, George Tillman, Jr.’s “The Hate U Give,” which premiered Friday night at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, is doing something almost unheard of for the genre, it’s taking a stand on social justice.
Adapted from Angie Thomas’ critically acclaimed and best selling 2017 novel, “Hate U Give” is told through the eyes of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, great), a 16-year-old who lives in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, but attends a prep school with her brother that is almost exclusively white. In a voice-over, we discover that Starr sees herself as two people. There’s the Starr that can be herself with her family and the Starr that has to tone down who she really is in front of her white school friends. Her white friends can act “black” for fun, but if she did? No, that wouldn’t fly.
Those friends, specifically Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter, spot on) and Maya (Megan Lawless, solid), know little about what her life is like back home. She also has a boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa, a replacement in reshoots and it shows), who her parents Lisa (Regina Hall, having a year) and Maverick (Russell Hornsby, quite good), have never met and her father is completely unaware of. And, yes, you can see all the conflicts coming down the pike, but Thomas and Tillman have a number of pleasant surprises in store that are truly noteworthy.
Starr decides to attend a local house party where she runs into her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith, very good), who attends a different high school. Their families have known each other forever and we soon learn that Starr has had a crush on him since she was little. After a gunshot goes off at the party, Khalil grabs Starr to take her back home. While they are driving, they are stopped by a police officer (Drew Starkey, fine) for no apparent reason. Khalil is annoyed at this obvious act of racial profiling and after exiting the vehicle as instructed, reaches into the car to grab a hairbrush. The officer overreacts and shoots Khalil, thinking he grabbed a gun. Khalil dies in front of Starr who goes into shock over what she’s just witnessed.
A minor, Starr’s identity as the sole witness in the case is kept secret, but Khalil’s death becomes a national news story. Unsure of how to handle the situation, Starr keeps her involvement quiet from everyone including her friends and boyfriend. And that’s when the film really has something to stay.
The strength of “Hate U Give” is its’ willingness to point out the hypocrisy in all corners of Starr’s life. There are her friends who participate in a walk out to support the injustice Khalil but are really just doing it to get out of school. There is the social justice legal activist, April (Issa Rae, solid), who wants to make sure Starr goes in front of the grand jury even if it means potentially revealing her identity to the press or supporters of the disgraced police officer. There are simply not enough films, let alone studio made films, that tackle issues such as these with the honesty and subtlety that Tillman, Jr. is reaching for. For a good 30 minutes in the middle of the picture, Starr engages in frank conversations or arguments (take your pick) with Hailey which should hopefully wake up some of the white teenagers who think they are truly “woke” in the audience. It’s not just admirable; it’s not progressive. It’s almost revolutionary.
Where the film digresses is in a secondary storyline involving Maverick and the local drug dealer, King (Anthony Mackie, doing his best). The two men were partners in a gang back in the day until Maverick took one for King and was incarcerated. Upon their return, Maverick got out of that biz and opened up his own grocery store. When King realizes Starr is the witness in Khalil’s murder he becomes intensely concerned she may tell the grand jury something that would incriminate him. This sets up a mano-a-mano showdown between the two fathers which wants to make a point about gun control but simply feels forced compared to the rest of the events in the picture.
Despite the melodramatic ending, you leave the theater wanting to root for the film and its characters. These are the sort of movies Hollywood needs to be making. These are the sort of stories young people need to experience. It can’t be left to just television and social media to convey the continuing injustice of People of Color and all minorities in America. It needs to be integrated into the broad stories Hollywood produces on a daily basis. And, thankfully, “The Hate U Give” is a great start. [B]
“The Hate U Give” opens Oct. 19 in theaters nationwide.