When Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give hit bookshelves last year, not only did it become a New York Times best-seller within a week, it was heralded as the first young adult novel to come out of the Black Lives Matter era. The book was put on a fast track to the big screen before it was even released. Amandla Stenberg told audiences at a special screening that she was signed on to the film durindg these early stages. Now, The Hate U Give is in theaters, offering a more intimate take on how deadly violence at the hands of police affects the ecosystem of Black communities. Stenberg delivers an amazing performance as Starr Carter, the sole witness to a police shooting that kills her childhood friend, Kalil (Algee Smith). The ripple effect that the murder has on Starr’s neighborhood and even her racial identity — especially as she continues to balance her time at her mostly white school — are laid out to give viewers a rare holistic glimpse at what we mean when we say Black Lives Matter.
At the center of Starr’s life is her family. Thomas did us all a service in writing a Black family as dynamic and imperfect as the Carters. Yes, The Hate U Give is a testament to Black community, but it’s also a nuanced celebration of Black families rarely seen in pop culture.
The opening scene in The Hate U Give is a flashback to patriarch Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby) giving his children a stern lesson on how to behave when engaging with the police. As his wife Lisa (Regina Hall) looks on — finding the whole ordeal to be a bit much for their young children — he demands that they demonstrate how to place their hands flat on a visible surface. Maverick subscribes to the 10-point program of the Black Panther Party and has raised his children to keep it memorized and use it as a moral compass. On one hand, Maverick embodies a "strong Black man" archetype that is romanticized as the only kind of masculinity suited to lead a Black nuclear family. He is a woke king, with his own checkered past that includes gang affiliations and a prison stint that took him away from his wife and children. However, his experiences — and genuine love for his wife and children — have armed him with the tools to help his daughter through one of the most traumatic experiences of her life.
Starr’s family is full of complicated contradictions like this. She has an older half-sibling, Seven, whom her mother helps raise, even though he is the result of Maverick’s infidelity. Lisa and Maverick are madly in love, despite his transgression. Starr is also good friends with Seven’s other half-sister on his mother’s side, Kenya (Dominique Fishback), but the tension between their two parents is thick. Lisa's brother Carlos (Common) helped raise his children during his imprisonment, which has created a sibling rivalry between them. The familial relationships that seep from the Carter family and into the Garden Heights neighborhood where they all live is convoluted, but not dysfunctional.
Yes, The Hate U Give is timely because it arrives in the thick of what has become a barrage of state-sanctioned, anti-Black violence incidents. It hones in on the humanity of those victimized by these interactions while many only dare to experience it as part of sensationalized media. However, this film — and the novel upon which it is based — also keeps it real about the untold details that add texture to our experiences as Black people. Our blended families, affairs, and relationships are not always a source of drama worthy of a telenovela. Sometimes that’s just the way things are.
I understand this personally. My Granny raised me for a huge chunk of my childhood. A lot of people don’t know that my mother’s best friend is not actually my biological aunt because of how close we were to her family. I have a sister who is 10 months younger than me who I didn’t meet until I was in middle school. I dated a guy whose grandmother once dated my father. It sounds messy… messier than it actually is.
It was refreshing to see those dynamics normalized on screen for a change, especially when it's so easy to pathologize every part of Black culture. When you hit the theater this weekend to see the movie, open yourself up to engaging with the parts of the Black experience that don’t make headlines.