Starr divides herself into two different versions and never lets her two worlds touch each other, becoming the “Starr” she feels each one warrants. She refuses to give her classmates a reason to call her “ghetto” at school and consciously stops herself from using black slang, despite her best friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa) having no problem using the same vocabulary around her.
During a house party in Garden Heights, Starr is reunited with her childhood friend and first love, Khalil (Algee Smith) who offers to drive her home when the party takes a sudden turn. Their reunion is short-lived, however, when a cop pulls them over and forces Khalil to get out of his car. A terrified Starr tells Khalil to listen to the cop and stand still while he checks his license, but Khalil is unfazed and reaches inside the car to pull out a hairbrush. As he steps back with the brush, he is shot three times by the officer who mistakes it for a gun.
Starr is the only witness to the murder and finds herself pressured to take the stand and testify before a grand jury on behalf of Khalil. But she’s torn between protecting her two identities, which will surely collide once news reaches her Williamson classmates, and standing up for the injustice she bore witness to. To complicate matters, her testimony will also reveal Khalil’s drug dealings in the community’s King Lords, a gang led by King (Anthony Mackie), who threatens Starr not to take the stand.
What follows is an emotional coming-of-age story set beneath the canopy of the Black Lives Matter movement, combining the weight of today’s societal climate with the complexity of a young girl just trying to figure out who she is in the world. White privilege and black burden meet in a collision of epic proportions as Starr struggles to find the courage to challenge an unjust system and to fight for what she believes in. It’s not simply about having a voice, but being brave enough to use it.
Stenberg is a standout and delivers a commanding performance worthy of only the highest praise possible. She perfectly encapsulates Starr's desperate search for some sort of impossible resolution to the murder of her friend, which makes for a lot of heart-wrenching scenes, particularly as she experiences the anguish and frustration that come with witnessing such a tragedy. This is surely a career-transforming role for the young actress.
Another incredible performance is given by Russell Hornsby, who plays Starr’s ex-convict father Maverick. Maverick only wants the best for his three children, but understands the world they’re being brought up in. When Starr is only nine years old, he gives them what she later refers to as “the talk,” which has nothing to do with the birds and the bees. This “talk” is meant to teach the children how to survive being pulled over by police. Maverick instructs them to always keep their hands flat on the dashboard and to make no sudden movements so they won’t get shot. Then he tells them to memorize the Black Panther Ten-Point Program and be able to recite the lines verbatim to him whenever he requests.
Maverick is fiercely protective of his family and his community, and recognizes not only the responsibility his daughter has to share her testimony, but also the danger that comes with it. He encourages Starr to find her voice while putting his own life on the line to protect her from every threat that comes her way. After a particularly heated encounter with the King Lords gang, Starr tells her father she doesn’t want him to get hurt because of her, and he delivers one of the movie’s most powerful lines in response: “My reasons to live are my reasons to die.”
The title is gradually shown throughout the film as having been inspired by the rapper Tupac, who famously said Thug Life stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone (T.H.UG. L.I.F.E.). In the movie, Khalil tells Starr this means the hate and racism that surrounds children will only continue in a vicious cycle as they grow up, inspiring riots and violence and more hate to continue on.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is its play on light versus darkness. Starr is constantly told by her father that her name is her superpower and that she’s meant to “shine bright” wherever she goes. As she struggles with the anguish and frustration of the tragedy she witnessed, Starr has to also fight not to lose her “brightness” and learn how to utilize it to make a difference in an otherwise dark situation.
The film does occasionally slip into stereotypical, cliché territory, particularly with a few instances of preachy and somewhat clunky dialogue. Like for instance when Starr’s white boyfriend, Chris, insists he doesn’t see color and that the issue of black versus white doesn’t exist anymore because now “we’re all equal.” Thankfully, Starr is able to remedy this moment as she passionately tells Chris, “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.”
Overall, the movie does an incredible job of bringing Thomas’ novel to the big screen and utilizing her powerful story to epitomize the growing movement of black Americans unwilling to stand by as innocent lives are needlessly lost. In using a teenager pushed over the brink of adulthood following a devastating murder, The Hate U Give makes for an emotional, passionate narrative on modern day racial strife. ~Caitlyn Clancey