The opening scene in The Hate U Give is one of duality. It's a beautiful sunny day in Garden Heights: children are biking outside, neighbors are waving at each other. Inside the Carter home, however, something much more serious is taking place. Maverick "Mav" Carter (Russell Hornsby) is giving his children "The Talk" about how to behave if they or anyone they are with, is ever stopped by a police officer.
As she explains in a voiceover during an expositional montage, there are two versions of Starr. The first, is the Starr from Garden Heights. She loves her family, and her Black community. Through her father, she's learned to be proud of who she is. But she also knows that her identity comes with its share of burdens and complications. On the one hand, there's the constant threat of violence from gangs who rule the neighborhood. But there's also the menace from external factors: from the police, from strangers who might look at her askance, and even from her school friends, who inadvertently dismiss her Blackness as tangential to who she is through a constant stream of micro-aggressions.
To a certain extent, that erasure kind of works for the other Starr, the one who attends the mostly white Williamson Prep with her brother Sekani (TJ Wright), and half brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) in an affluent neighborhood. "Williamson Starr doesn't give anyone a reason to call her ghetto," she narrates. She watches her diction, works hard for her grades, and mostly keeps her head down. She never, ever asks anyone to come and hang out at her house — especially not Chris (Riverdale's KJ Appa), her white boyfriend, even though he "doesn't see color." At home, she can relax. At Williamson, she's constantly performing to make other people comfortable.
But soon enough, even her home life gets compromised. One night, Starr goes to a party in Garden Heights with her best friend Kenya (Dominique Fishback), who also happens to be the daughter of King (Anthony Mackie), head of a local gang called the King Lords, which has shadowed the outskirts of Starr's life thus far. Her father used to be a member, but got out after taking a three-year prison sentence for a crime King committed; her friend Natasha was killed by a stray bullet during a King Lord shooting when they were children; and now, her childhood crush Khalil (Algee Smith) may or may not be working for King to help feed his family.
When a shooting breaks up the party, Khalil offers to take Starr home. They get pulled over by a cop, who mistakes a hairbrush in the car for a gun and shoots Khalil, killing him. And suddenly, a traumatized Starr can no longer keep her two identities separate. Torn between her desire to honor her friend's memory, and the terror of being made a target — both by the police, and by King, who might perceive her as a snitch, she chooses to find her inner voice, and use it.
Stenberg gives a stunning and powerful portrayal of seething, bubbling rage at the injustice that she can endure no longer. But what keeps The Hate U Give from veering into the melodramatic or preachy territory is that it commits to fleshing out its characters fully. As in the book, events are told from Starr's perspective, a narrative device that grounds a socially militant story in the personal, which in turn resonates on a gut level. But the phenomenal supporting cast — specifically Hornsby and Regina Hall who plays Starr's mother Lisa, as well as Issa Rae, who plays a lawyer and Black Lives Matters activist — makes this universe feel vibrant and real. Neither Starr, nor her parents or brothers, are stand-ins for a cause. They are people. And they've been wronged.
Director George Tillman Jr. (Notorious, Barbershop) deftly highlights the constant little micro-aggressions that take their toll on Starr's everyday life, from white friend Hailey making a comment about "pretending the ball is fried chicken" during basketball practice, to enduring questions about Khalil's background and potentially illegal activities in the aftermath of his death.
But Audrey Wells' screenplay isn't your average Y.A. fare, with clear-cut good and evil. The Hate U Give doesn't shy away from gray areas, as exemplified by Starr's uncle Carlos (Common), a surrogate father to her who is also a cop, and a colleague of the man who shot Khalil. One of the movie's most poignant moments is a conversation in which she confronts him about what he would have done in that situation, and his answer isn't a simple one.
A story like this one is particularly difficult one to pull off. Conflict demands resolution, and the sad truth is that there is no such thing in this case. Police brutality and systemic racism aren't issues that can be fixed with a heartfelt speech, or even a protest. As a result, the first two-thirds of the film are definitely stronger than the final act, when everything gets wrapped up a little too neatly.
Still, The Hate U Give is the kind of film we need right now: One that doesn't fear to address complicated issues head-on, and doesn't worry too much about delivering a clear-cut, easy to digest answer.
"The Hate U Give" will hit theaters in limited release on October 5 and in wide release October 19.