Amandla Stenberg shines in powerful 'The Hate U Give'

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

Based on the novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, George Tillman Jr.'s "The Hate U Give," adapted by Audrey Wells, is not a "young adult" film, though the story has been labeled as such. It's a film about young adults, but the issues they face are ones that grip our entire nation, no matter the age. It's a story about young adults grappling with very large problems that have an overwhelming effect on young people, such as police brutality, gang warfare and state violence.

"The Hate U Give" finally gives the magnetic young performer Amandla Stenberg a vehicle worthy of her talents. Having shone in mediocre efforts such as "Everything, Everything" and "The Darkest Minds," the film gives her a role to really sink her teeth into with the character of Starr Carter.

Amandla Stenberg stars in "The Hate U Give." The movie opens Oct. 18 at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13 and Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13.

Her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), a former gang member-turned-grocery store owner, instilled the Black Panther 10-point program in his children from a young age, instilling in them the knowledge both of the unfair and corrupt criminal justice and economic system, but also of their personal power. He trains his three children, Starr, Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright), to comply obediently with police to keep themselves as safe as possible in the event of an inevitable run-in with the law.

Starr is well-versed in performing herself as non-threatening to white people, a skill she's also developed at her private school, where she deftly code-switches for her white friends and white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa). Although they freely appropriate rap music and black slang, Starr must be agreeable and amicable at all times. She walks a tenuous but manageable line that becomes unbearable when she becomes the sole witness to the police shooting of an unarmed black teen, her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith).

Amandla Stenberg and KJ Apa star in "The Hate U Give." The movie opens Oct. 18 at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13 and Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13.

"The Hate U Give," which borrows its title from a Tupac lyric reading, "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fs Everybody" ("T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E."), follows the community as it reels from the murder of a young man as protests erupt and the King Lords gang attempts to silence Starr for speaking of Khalil's dealing drugs. But the center of the story is not Garden Heights, the Carter family or even Khalil. It is how Starr deals with her responsibility to her friend, her role as a witness, her own self-preservation instincts.

The film would not work without an actor of Stenberg's capabilities. Starr's struggle with her identity and instincts is palpable, and she keeps the film grounded in reality even when it threatens to spiral off into outlandish melodrama. When Starr finally lets go of her instincts to save herself, she lands in the midst of a chaotic protest verging on a riot. A young lawyer and activist (Issa Rae) hands her a megaphone. "Are you ready to use your weapon?" she asks Starr, who steps on the hood of a car and speaks truth to power.

Amandla Stenberg and Algee Smith star in "The Hate U Give." The movie opens Oct. 18 at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13 and Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13.

The police push back, the crowd is violently dispersed. Fires and violence rage anyway, but something has changed in Starr, who has finally lifted her voice, and, it seems, won't ever stop. Speaking her truth clears the channel for Starr's power, and she is allowed to shine the way her father named her. While there are moments where "The Hate U Give" could use more restraint, what it proves is restraint is ill-advised when it comes to sharing your voice and your truth.

3 stars
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, K.J. Apa, Russell Hornsby, Issa Rae, Algee Smith.
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language.