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‘The Hate U Give’ could have used a little more love

Amandla Stenberg underwhelms, and the rest of the movie doesn’t help her

The Hate U Give is one of the most highly anticipated teen films of 2018. But it is not without faults, and as they mounted during the film, so did my disappointment in this adaptation of the best-selling young adult novel.

The film’s problems range from an unfortunate dependence on melodrama to small but frustrating inconsistencies to plain old bad performances.

Directed by George Tillman Jr., The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a sneaker-obsessed tomboy who lives in the poor black Georgia community of Garden Heights. Starr lives with her two brothers, Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright), and her parents. Her mother, Lisa (played with effortless naturalism by Regina Hall), is a nurse, and her father, Maverick (a heart-melting Russell Hornsby), is an ex-member of the King Lords gang and has served time in prison. Now Maverick runs a family business, a small grocery store that serves the community to which he’s wedded. Starr has two lives: the one she lives in Garden Heights and the other at Williamson Prep, a private, mostly white suburban school a 45-minute drive away.

The crux of the story revolves around the night Starr witnesses her unarmed childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) murdered by a white police officer and the terror and anguish that follows his killing. The story takes its title from one of Khalil’s favorite artists, Tupac Shakur, whose motto “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” is an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody.”

It’s impossible to read The Hate U Give or see it onscreen and not clock its allusions to the death of Michael Brown and the unrest that followed in Ferguson, Missouri. Much like Brown and Trayvon Martin before him, Khalil is tried in the press for his own murder, with every unrelated flaw in his character splashed all over national news. Khalil’s connection to a drug dealer and gang leader, King (Anthony Mackie), becomes a secondary flash point.

Starr is a constant, if reluctant, code-switcher who has tried to keep Williamson Prep separate from Garden Heights, and much of The Hate U Give focuses on the implications of revealing her role the night Khalil was shot. King is worried that his connection to Khalil will eventually send the media and police his way, and he does everything he can to intimidate Starr into shutting up. Meanwhile, Starr faces conflicting pressures within her family. Her mother wants to protect Starr from the worst of what it means to be black and largely disenfranchised; she’s seen the life her police officer brother Carlos (another wooden turn by Common) leads in the suburbs. It’s safe, bucolic, but also immensely sheltered.

K.J. Apa as Chris and Amandla Stenberg as Starr in The Hate U Give.

Erika Doss/20th Century Fox

In his quest to create a setting that mirrors every impoverished American neighborhood with a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard running through it, Tillman loses an intimacy that would make The Hate U Give more resonant. For instance, the film is completely scrubbed of linguistic cues that would even place the audience in the South, much less Georgia.

Recent works from authors such as Jesmyn Ward and Natalie Baszile have provided unblinking glimpses into black Southern poverty. But the tentativeness of The Hate U Give, combined with an overreliance on voiceover exposition, feels like a step backward. And while this adaptation, penned by the recently deceased Audrey Wells, hews fairly close to its source material, I found its departures curious, especially a decision made during Khalil’s fatal encounter with an officer from the fictional Freemont Police Department.

In the book, Starr cradles Khalil after he’s shot, and he at least has the comfort of being held by his childhood best friend as he lies dying. But onscreen, the trigger-happy officer handcuffs a horrified Starr, placing her on the ground next to Khalil, where she can do nothing but sit helplessly. I imagine it’s meant to magnify the callousness of the officer, but the film comes across as pleading with its audience to feel the tragedy instead of trusting it to come to that emotion on its own. Similar effects result from Francesco Le Metre’s score, which sometimes sends the film veering into melodrama.

Any black girl who’s ever had braids will spot the continuity issues in The Hate U Give. Stenberg appears in braids for most of the film, but they vary wildly from scene to scene, from comfortably worn in one moment to fresh plaits so tight they require ibuprofen in the next. But that’s fairly minor compared to the movie’s distracting timeline in the final act.

Starr storms away from school with her boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), after a heated disagreement with her friend and basketball teammate Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) about racism. She gets a frantic text from her best Garden Heights friend, Kenya, to come rescue Seven from King’s house. When King can’t find Starr, he beats the daylights out of Seven, although the movie offers no explanation for why Starr is at school and Seven is not, since they both attend Williamson.

After barely escaping a brush with King, the three teens pile into Chris’ SUV with Seven’s two half-sisters, only to encounter a giant rally on the way to the hospital — Khalil’s killer won’t be indicted. Suddenly and without explanation, it’s instantly nightfall. It’s not late fall or winter, as everyone’s wearing warm-weather clothes. I found myself rubbing my temples, exasperated that neither Tillman nor the film’s editor picked up on the timing issue.

Few films are perfect, and continuity and timing problems can be forgiven if the performances propel you past them. But that’s not the case here.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the Youth of Hollywood in the past few years can understand why Stenberg would be attracted to this project. When she was 16, Stenberg made a video on cultural appropriation for a school project entitled Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.

By that time, Stenberg, now 19, had already experienced racist fans, courtesy of Hunger Games acolytes livid at the decision to cast her as Rue. But The Hate U Give shines an unfortunate light on how Stenberg’s social justice passions have outpaced her skills as an actress. Nowhere does this come across as much as it does in a scene where Starr confronts Uncle Carlos as he explains why an officer would choose to shoot an unarmed citizen. Common is nearly robotic, and Stenberg simply doesn’t have much to play off of. She fares better in scenes with Hornsby, who brings a rugged tenderness to his portrayal of a tatted-up former gang member who tries to live by the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program.

In another pivotal scene, where Starr is testifying before a grand jury, Tillman relies on voiceover, suggesting a lack of confidence in Stenberg’s ability to convey the emotion of the situation. But this was Stenberg’s part from the film’s genesis. According to a Washington Post profile, she chased down the rights to the film adaptation before author Angie Thomas had even finished her manuscript.

Nevertheless, when Stenberg’s casting was announced, it stirred a colorism controversy. Stenberg is fair, and in the book, Starr identifies herself as “medium-brown.” The ruckus spurred articles about colorism in Hollywood, and Thomas let it be known that she had no power over casting decisions. Stenberg addressed the colorism issue in an interview with Variety. “Something interesting has happened with me and Yara [Shahidi] and Zendaya …,” Stenberg said. “We are lighter-skinned black girls and we fill this interesting place of being accessible to Hollywood and accessible to white people in a way that darker-skinned girls are not afforded the same privilege.”

Color aside, Stenberg simply doesn’t lend Starr much depth, instead choosing to play a range of complex and conflicting emotions with a clenched jaw and little else.

The other part of The Hate U Give’s emotional disjointedness lay in Stenberg’s scenes with Riverdale star Apa. Stenberg was called back after production wrapped to reshoot scenes with Apa. Her scenes with the original actor who played Chris, YouTuber Kian Lawley, were scrubbed from the film after a video surfaced of Lawley using a racial slur and making insensitive remarks.

Even in a film with subject matter as grave as The Hate U Give, the Dreamboat Factor remains — it’s a teen film, after all. Unfortunately, Stenberg’s scenes with Apa are cold and awkward. And in the harsh fluorescent light of Williamson, a cheap-looking dye job makes Apa look more like a mid-20s Dracula than a typical American boy, much less a teen heartthrob.

Starr’s life is a complicated whorl of race, working-class poverty, hormones, grief and typical teenage dilemmas. In dealing with all of it, the book character finds her confidence and her voice. But the movie version of The Hate U Give leaves me unsure that its makers ever found theirs.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.