It seems like every year there’s a specific social issue that a lot of filmmakers (or vapid studio heads just following trends) want to focus on. Last year seemed to be the theme of “sticking it to the oppressors”, with popular films like Darkest HourThe Greatest Showman, and The Post. For 2018, it seems that it’s the subject of black-white race relations in America, with films like BlackKklansman and Blindspotting. I have absolutely no issue with filmmakers exploring very serious, real life themes that legitimately have an effect on us. What I do have a problem with is poor filmmaking and storytelling, as well as feeling like I’m being talked down to. Such is the dilemma of a “social issue” film.

The Hate U Give follows 16-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a black girl who constantly finds herself between two identities. She lives in a poor neighborhood, but attends a mostly white boarding school at her parent’s behest. While at school, she attempts to fit in the best she can, mostly by hiding her “blackness”. When she’s at home and out partying with her friends, she can fully be herself and not hide who she is. She’s soon forced to fully embrace one identity or the other, though, when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) by a police officer. As outside pressure surrounding the incident mounts, Starr realizes that she can be a tool to bring about change.

As it’s based off the young adult novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give examines the issue of police officers shooting black citizens from a teenage perspective. As far as representing these themes explored from a teenage point of view, it seemed accurate enough, such as the crumbling friendship between Starr and her white classmate Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). There’s one scene where the whole prep school ditches to protest Khalil’s shooting, and Starr accuses Hailey and most of them of not really caring, only wanting to get out of school. The issues that get brought up are valid things to examine and debate, but they don’t go past the vaguest notion of “this is unethical and we shouldn’t let it happen.” It’s also kind of hard to take some of the teen drama seriously, when the hearing the words, “I unfollowed you on tumblr,” being the most devastating thing you could ever hear. Eh, I guess that’s how teens are, though.

As all the legal proceedings surrounding Khalil’s shooting take place, Starr finds herself wondering if she should speak up about what happened, or just keep going about her life. She can’t just keep going about her life, though, as Khalil’s murder infests every facet of it, from the relationships with her friends and family, as well as being persuaded by activists to become a voice in the matter. Amandla Stenberg is an excellent young star (no pun intended) who more than carries the film with her quiet, yet furious performance. Starr is all about hiding who she truly is in order to please others, but she realizes over time that it’s really up to her to choose her own path and be herself. The rest of the cast is also outstanding, especially Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall as Starr’s parents. Not only do they play the parental parts well, with how they bicker and have different points of views, but they firmly believe in their convictions.

But what holds it all back is that none of themes are examined with any depth or nuance, the filmmakers not really examining the themes past their surface level. The main theme is, “Police officers need to stop shooting unarmed black people,” but nothing is ever said to actually address the issue, nor propose a solution. It’s really all just stuff you see in real life: yelling and protesting, with no real change in sight. Starr has a police officer uncle, played by Common, who has a conversation with her about why he may feel he needs to shoot somebody. When Starr asks, “Well, what if that person happens to be white, do you act different then?” He responds that he would and when she asks why, he simply says, “It’s more complicated than that.” Well, yeah, the issue is a lot more complicated than that, so why not explore it more and keep the debate going? While the filmmakers and initial author obviously have an agenda and a clear side of the debate they’re on, it was nice that these opposing points of view were brought up in the first place. Isn’t that how we move forward as a species? By just talking?

When you’re making a film about serious, real life issues, then I hope those themes presented with some realism. Unfortunately, The Hate U Give falls into generic movie traps that are completely unnecessary and drag the film down. There’s a whole subplot featuring a gangster named King (Anthony Mackie), who had Khalil in his employment as a drug dealer. Afraid that Starr will eventually give up that information to the authorities, we get your typical “men menacingly staring from across the sidewalk” and “drive-by shooting that interrupts a jovial family gathering”. Is gang violence a real issue in lower income neighborhoods? Absolutely, but here, it’s not treated with any respect and just felt like a cheap way to raise the stakes. This isn’t even the type of film needs an over-the top, murderous thug antagonist, anyway. The antagonist is every force that Starr goes up against as she figures out her identity. Neither the screenwriter Audrey Wells (who unfortunately passed away, recently) or director George Tillman Jr. really felt like they were really up to the task, with resumes including films like A Dog’s Purpose and the Barbershop series. Doesn’t seem like the best team to tackle a project with such heavy ideas.

Perhaps a different director and screenwriter could have created something great here, and it may seem like I hated The Hate U Give, but I mostly found it to be disappointingly frustrating. The performances are just outstanding across the board and there’s a strong central story with Starr and her identity, but I couldn’t help but feel it was constantly held back by its source material. It’s based off a young adult novel and that’s not a genre that’s really famous for subtlety and nuanced examinations. Unfortunately, issues such as race deserve to be treated with nuance, no matter who the audience is. It may be geared towards teens and young adults, but they want to be taken just as seriously as any other person, and I think they deserve that courtesy. You could certainly say, and more importantly, inspire, a lot more.


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