A famous quote from Paul Newman came to mind when I was watching The Hate U Give, “Cast me in the right role and I am priceless.”
I’ve never thought much of Amandla Stenberg. Everything, Everything, and The Darkest Minds were both massive young adult (YA) disappointments, but with George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, Stenberg has finally found the right role.
Starr Carter (Stenberg) is from Garden Heights, a mostly black, low-income neighborhood. Her parents have always taught her to take pride in who she is, but to sleep with one eye open. It’s a stark contrast from Williamson Prep, the mostly white, affluent private school she attends. Starr deals with an internal conflict of which version of herself she has to be at any given time. One night at a party, she reconnects with childhood friend Khalil. As he’s driving her home, a cop pulls them over, and shoots and kills Khalil right in front of Starr. As this story gains media attention, different versions of the incident appear, and Starr must discover how to stand up and fight against injustice.
Stenberg is absolutely electric in this role. She plays her role with subtlety and the quiet rage the character needs, but she powerfully commands the screen in a way she never has. It’s the first role I’ve seen her in that suggests she has a very bright career ahead of her. This is a story that, unfortunately, audiences very much need right now, and she’s up to the challenge of being its emotional core. Starr is conflicted, scared, angry as hell and unaware of her own power.
Russell Hornsby as Starr’s once-incarcerated father with consistent wise words to offer, and Regina Hall as her mother, who wants the family to move out of Garden Heights, are both very good. As with any book adaptation, you get the cliff notes version of each character, but these people feel true and lived-in. The film has a terrific lineup of supporting players, including Common, Marvel’s Anthony Mackie, Riverdale’s KJ Apa, and Insecure’s Issa Rae, but it’s never not Stenberg’s show.
As for negatives, the film does fall into some familiar YA trappings. Despite the terrific supporting cast, every secondary character feels like an extension of Starr and the experience she’s going through. It sort of goes off the rails in the third act to drive its point home, but it feels like a necessary gamble. Also, the color palette dramatically shifts between the warm, cozy atmosphere of Garden Heights and the sterile, cold world of Williamson Prep, it’s a bit off-putting. If this was a bit more subtle, it would feel less jarring, but it’s not that big of a deal when you look at the bigger picture.
George Tillman Jr., for the most part, has made an absolutely stellar adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel. This zeitgeisty, movie-of-the-moment story is folded into a familiar coming-of-age structure in a very effective way. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but it needs to be. It’s terrifically acted, well-paced and thrilling. It’s a very important, thought-provoking story, and I hope everyone sees this movie.