The Hate U Give, based on the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas, is not a rap movie, but it owes a lot to Tupac — including its title.
"The Hate U Give Little Infants [expletives] Everybody." That's what the legendary rapper said the term "thug life" stood for. His meaning, that the environment you feed to children grows in ways you might later regret, is no less relevant now, more than 20 years after his death. Racism, despite a few misguided claims to the contrary, has not been fixed in America, and many would argue that it is distressingly common today.
That the film is out to tackle this subject is clear from the jump. The movie opens with a father (Russell Hornsby) giving his children, the oldest of whom is only 10, "The Talk," instructing them how to behave if pulled over by a police officer. "Moving makes cops nervous," he explains, saying that if the kids are ever in the car with him and he's pulled over, they will see him keep his hands on the dashboard at all times. But the advice comes with a strong message: "Know your rights. Know your worth," he says.
Years later, we follow his daughter, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), as she essentially lives two lives. At home, she's Starr 1.0, in a poor neighborhood plagued by drugs and crime (but also filled with culture and love), where she occasionally has to prove that she still belongs. At her private school miles away, she's "Starr 2.0," a person of color in a mostly white school where every student is college-bound. Here, she's careful with her words and makes an effort not to come off as too "hood." If a rapper uses certain slang, it's her cue that the language is off-limits for Starr 2.0. Her hair is different, her clothes are different. She's no longer sure which version of Starr is more real than the other.
At school, she has a popular white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), rich friends and seemingly little to worry about. But she never allows any of her classmates, not even Chris, to so much as glimpse her life at home. Because back home, the kids her age "can't even have a party without someone getting shot at," as her childhood friend Khalil puts it.
Starr and Khalil are at such a party together when they're forced to flee gunshots. On the way to drop Starr off at home, Khalil is pulled over. Starr pleads with Khalil to keep his hands on the dash — like her father taught her — but Khalil is a teenage boy trying to impress a teenage girl. While never mean or physically combative, he's also not meek when talking to the officer. He gets out of the car as requested, but voices his displeasure.
Then Khalil reaches into the car to grab his comb — again showing off for Starr — at which point the cop shoots him. Starr watches as her childhood friend bleeds out on the road, dying for the crime of not using his blinker.
What follows is a whirlwind of tough questions and agonizing moments that will make you feel sad, angry, frustrated, hopeless, hopeful and maybe determined. The Hate U Give is not always an easy movie to watch (especially for the people of color for whom the film will most hit home), nor does it provide much in the way of easy solutions or answers. But at its best, it will force you to look at the society we've created and perpetuate and ask, "Can we do better?"
Acknowledging that the waters are muddy is one of the story's most masterful strokes. It would be easy, for example, to leap directly from a white cop shooting an unarmed black teen into a black-and-white "all cops are corrupt" message, but it doesn't: Minutes after we see the shooting, we're introduced to Starr's uncle — an upstanding cop whose first concern is making sure his niece is OK. And anybody who has ever had an intense debate about Black Lives Matter can probably already hear the cry of, "But what about black-on-black violence?" which the film doesn't ignore, either.
Don't misunderstand, though: The Hate U Give offers incisive criticism of the killing of unarmed black males. Figures like Eric Garner and Emmett Till are mentioned by name, and the Black Lives Matter movement is felt throughout the narrative. Just because the story admits that these issues can get messy doesn't mean it refuses to take a stand.
Starr walks out of Khalil's funeral and into a war zone. As she weighs whether or not she is willing to appear in court as a witness to the shooting, the rest of her life gets increasingly complicated. Her neighborhood's crime boss (Anthony Mackie), who has connections to her family, makes threats, arguing that if Starr talks to the authorities it will bring unwelcome attention to Khalil's connection to his drug dealings. And snitching is very much frowned upon.
White "allies" are also taken to task, with Starr and her mother both voicing frustration at a student-led walkout at Starr's school, which they see as little more than a flimsy excuse for the kids to cut class and feel good about it. Starr learns the hard way that some of her friends might not be as "woke" as she thought.
Believe it or not, there are happy moments, too. A meeting between Starr's father and her boyfriend is packed with lighthearted humor, and a surprising number of Harry Potter references will make you genuinely wonder if J.K. Rowling was thinking of gangs when she created the Hogwarts houses.
The Hate U Give could be unfairly boiled down to "a Black Lives Matter movie." But it's much more than that. It's a story about a loving but flawed father struggling to break a cycle of violence with his kids. It's a story about learning to be yourself during your formative high school years. It's a story about racial tension, but also about how people of different shades can come together for good.
With all of that wrapped together, The Hate U Give could be remembered as this generation's Do The Right Thing. It's one of the best — and most important — films of the year, even if you're not the young adult audience the book was originally written for.
The Hate U Give (A)
PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language). 132 minutes. In wide release.