The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas’s 2017 best-selling debut novel, is probably the most important movie you will see this year. Director George Tillman Jr., armed with an all-star cast, delivers a near-perfect adaptation. The premise is familiar: an unarmed young black man is killed by a cop—either a routine traffic stop gone wrong or a tragic murder, depending on who you ask. We hear this story again and again; we read the articles, retweet the hashtag. But despite its familiarity, The Hate U Give is also completely new. This narrative has not been presented in this way before—on the big screen from a young black woman’s perspective.
Before the black teen, Khalil (Algee Smith), is killed, we meet the sixteen-year-old protagonist and his childhood best friend, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg). The film’s opening shot brings the viewer into the Carter’s Garden Heights home through a window, offering the audience an intimate look into a reality that will be unfamiliar—and even uncomfortable—for certain audiences.
The movie introduces Starr by explaining the two worlds she straddles. The morning drive from Garden Heights to Williamson, a predominantly white high school, takes Starr from her low-income, mostly black neighborhood to a wealthy one filled with huge houses and sprawling lawns. In a matter-of-fact tone, she explains that the local high school is where kids become statistics. Starr and her two brothers? They don’t go there. Her voice-over narration frames key moments, including Starr’s testimony as the sole witness to Khalil’s death.
At Williamson, Starr and her older brother Seven transform into a second version of themselves: sweatshirts and slang are put away. Throughout the film, Tillman draws the line between their worlds in both obvious and subtle ways. Rap music at a Garden Heights party means something far different from rap music played outside Williamson during a faux-protest. Starr’s search for identity is at the film’s core, even more explicit than in the novel, and the audience is almost equally invested in Starr finding herself as they are in Khalil’s case.
Stenberg’s performance as Starr is beyond award-worthy. She adeptly moves between the emotions Starr juggles after Khalil’s death: mourning her childhood best friend and feeling a deep-seated rage, while still finding moments of joy. Russell Hornsby gives the performance of his career as Maverick, a father who will do anything to protect his family. The screenplay returns multiple times to the power he bestowed on each of his children in their names. Maverick holds Starr when she wakes from a nightmare, but later demands that she stop crying and recite from the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program.
Hornsby and Stenberg are joined by Anthony Mackie as gang leader (and Maverick’s ex-partner) King; Issa Rae as lawyer-activist April Ofrah; Regina Hall as Starr’s no-nonsense mom Lisa; and Common as Starr’s Uncle Carlos, who is a cop. In interviews, Stenberg has repeatedly praised The Hate U Give for featuring multidimensional characters, and each actor’s efforts draw out the nuance that defined their characters in the book. The cast is supported by a soundtrack that ranges from Kendrick Lamar to original ballads, smoothly running the broad range of emotion Starr handles as the sole witness to Khalil’s death.
That Tillman would change certain elements of the original story makes sense—the film is his piece, not Thomas’s. The Hate U Give’s most pivotal scene, which has drawn gasps from each of the four audiences I’ve watched with, is nowhere to be found in Thomas’s novel. The novel’s namesake comes from Tupac Shakur’s THUG LIFE tattoo, an acronym that stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone. Khalil teaches this quote to Starr just before he’s killed. Rather than examine the idea solely in dialogue, Tillman uses his medium to his advantage, creating a visual version of the concept. Starr must literally stand up for what she believes in; she places herself between her eight-year-old brother and gun-wielding police officers. Everything slows and the sound of everyone’s panic is muffled as the cameras focus in on Starr deciding what to do, anchoring a chaotic scene on the film’s lead.
Tillman’s ending also departs from the source material, but is still satisfying for viewers who read the book first. The closing shot exits Starr’s bedroom through her window, careful cinematography working backward to match the opening and emphasizes the film as a window into a black community.
In addition to showcasing a fresh perspective on a Black Lives Matter case, The Hate U Give also feels like a new kind of teen movie. Though the protagonist is a teenager, Tillman makes no attempts to filter the serious topics discussed in Thomas’s novel, because racial profiling, violence, and family incarceration are real-life problems for countless black kids in neighborhoods like Garden Heights. He handles these issues with great respect for the teen characters, and consequently shows the same respect for the teen audience. Black teens finally get to see a movie about their everyday struggles.
By the film’s end, Starr has grown from the girl who forced herself into Starr Version 2 to a girl who loves herself and the community she comes from. The Hate U Give, though heartbreaking, is filled with hope and arrives at the moment it is needed most.