Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the latest cinematic YA adaption, tackling race relations in America with the same gravity as I, Daniel Blake
The Hate U Give – ★★★★☆
Debate is a clinical and academic term. It’s instantly off-putting, too. Our political debates are not designed to lead to reconciliation, not in their current antagonistic form. They reward those who can shout loudest and score the most points, whatever that means. There is no humanity in debates, no real ambition of togetherness at the heart of them.
All that to say, The Hate U Give is the kind of filmmaking that will ultimately save us. It’s no less impassioned or rebellious than someone picking a side, but humanity is brought back to the political divide by cinema’s ability to show, not tell. A film like this never feels as reductive as left vs right, democrat vs republican, black vs white.
Amandla Stenberg is Starr, a young black girl living in an all-black neighbourhood, but who attends the all-white school a little further from home. She’s popular at Williamson, owed much in fact to her tolerance of the kids around her appropriating black culture. At the school, she is playing a part that allows her to fit in, changing her demeanour, altering her way of speaking, hiding who she hangs out with back at home in Garden Heights.
It’s an introspective look at the idea of social mobility, where someone’s self-preserving motivation may distance themselves from where they came from, but might also threaten to lose their identity along the way.
It’s at a house party she bumps into Khalil, a childhood friend. Their shared history puts them both at ease, even if their paths in life have diverged. He’s sweet with her, but is involved with some things Starr stays clear of. After the party turns sour, he drives her home. It’s then they are pulled over by the police and The Hate U Give’s tragic existence is put into sharp focus.
Across more than two hours, the film builds an empathy-led case of injustices towards black people in America. The police play a huge part in that, but so too do linguistic code-switching, which neighbourhood you live in, social rules, the school you go to. The film is not a tweet-sized message of fury, but a widescreen depiction of life that is only ever one action away from volatile.
It is never simplified to black lives matter against blue lives matter. That is here, but within Garden Heights exists a culture of silence towards crime. Rightfully distrustful of the police, a new type of authority rules the neighbourhood, with drug lords silencing people through intimidation. You get the feeling director George Tillman Jr didn’t set out just to address white people – something he would have been justified in doing – but to tackle the holistic problem of racism that can come from everywhere, including all-black communities, much the same way classism in the UK can be found in the poorest towns.
The kids at Williamson represent a type of left-wing politics that pats itself on the back for the bare minimum, keen to use the language of black culture but benefit from not sharing a skin colour. Starr’s school persona separates her from black representation the kids see on TV, of gang members and hysterical parents losing their child. She is the height of togetherness, while they are dangerous, pathetic. It’s an introspective look at the idea of social mobility, where someone’s self-preserving motivation may distance themselves from where they came from, but might also threaten to lose their identity along the way. Starr is of Garden Heights and the grieving parents and drug lords are her community, and she would be far more ashamed to disown that part of her than to stand alongside them.
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It reminded me of I, Daniel Blake, which audiences had a duty to turn out for in the UK. It told the story of the white working- and underclass, but similarly, it’s about surviving under a system that wouldn’t blink at your death.
Those who felt duty bound to see I, Daniel Blake should feel the same towards The Hate U Give, now more than ever. Far-right personalities try to divide communities by pitting races against each other, when actually the working class and people of colour are siblings in arms against oppression. It’s impossible to watch this and not relate it back to the systemic problems found in Ken Loach’s film, with the same dread and inevitability, the same uphill struggle.
The white underclass has turned to Trump, Brexit, and Tommy Robinson because it has been let down by generations of politicians promising better without results. The Hate U Give is essential viewing for people of all social classes, but particularly white communities that have turned towards divisive extremism. It’s a reminder that we are siblings in arms against oppression, and that we have nothing to gain from fighting one another. It lets us into a neighbourhood not without problems, but by following Starr and her neighbourhood as it tries to make sense of tragedy, we realise there is no antagonism in assertive calls for an end to police brutality and continuous calls for rights and respect. There is only justice.
There is a duty to see the The Hate U Give. It is empathetic storytelling like this that will heal our troubled world. There is nothing artificial about it, no points trying to be scored. There is only a window to a misunderstood, underrepresented part of society. Turning away from it is not a neutral action. Why not make now the beginning of something better?
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