The biggest thing I left this movie with while walking to my car is just how true of a gift Issa Rae is to us all.
“The Hate U Give” is the adaptation of the 2017 novel of the same name, and follows a young high school girl (Amandla Stenberg) who must deal with the fallout after her childhood friend is shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, KJ Apa, Algee Smith, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, Sabrina Carpenter, Common and Anthony Mackie round out the cast while George Tillman Jr. directs.
2018 has been a successful year in media when it comes to tackling race relations and police brutality, with films like “Blindspotting” and shows like “Black-ish” doing so in relatable and comedic (yet no less impactful) ways. “The Hate U Give” is much more serious in its tone and delivery, as well as subject matter, and at times it is able to land its punches; sometimes it pulls them, however.
First, the good. In the central role, Amandla Stenberg (probably best known in the mainstream as Rue in the first “Hunger Games” film) delivers a very solid central performance, playing a young woman who constantly must straddle two different worlds: her black hometown life and her white private school one. Carrying two personas takes its toll on her but it is something she feels she must do in order to not be the “ghetto charity case” of the school. After witnessing her childhood friend (a charismatic Algee Smith) get shot when a police officer mistakes a hairbrush for a gun, Stenberg goes through a mixture of mourning, indifference and frustration, and by the climax of the film the anger behind her eyes is clear.
The rest of the cast is good as well, especially Smith in his limited scenes (he was so good in last year’s “Detroit”), Common during one speech about how strenuous an officer’s job really is and Russell Hornsby as Stenberg’s father, delivering two of the best monologues of the film. Issa Rae (who tackles race relations on her own time with “Insecure”) plays a social activist and while her presence is more than welcome and she has one great speech, her character doesn’t really add too much to the story.
Which is probably the film’s largest issue, there is a lot going on and it doesn’t always stay focused. Clocking in at 132 minutes there are certainly scenes that could have been cut or streamlined, and the film sometimes jumps around from scene to scene instead of flowing naturally. The script by Audrey Wells (who actually passed away the month of this film’s release, so prayers to her family) has some interesting takes on race and the police, but it also creates some unintentional jokes of characters.
KJ Apa but especially Sabrina Carpenter (playing Stenberg’s boyfriend and teammate, respectively) act as the token white characters, dishing out the “I don’t see color” and “all lives matter” lines that people use to ironically stereotype white people. Not that there aren’t a select handful of people in this world of seven billion that don’t talk with that hilariously cringe ignorance, I just don’t think they would exist in the world Wells created.
The film has two color pallets, an overexposed blue for the white school world and a warm orange-yellow for the community, just to emphasize the difference in the atmospheres. Cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. does a lot of close-up shots that let us see every expression and eye twitch on the actor’s faces and for the most part the scenes are edited nicely on their own accord (but just like I said, the film as a whole lacks real momentum).
“The Hate U Give” has several powerful scenes and more than its fair share of fine performances. It’s a shame the film nearly collapses under its own weight and can’t land the final gut punch (some corny narration and another [spoilery] flaw hold it back) but while this may not be a great film made at the right time, it is a pretty good one made for the current one.
Critic’s Grade: B