When a movie is repeatedly branded as being “powerful”, it’s hard not to be intrigued. But add to that a storyline about police brutality, racial profiling and a woman of colour as the lead, and you pretty much have my dream movie.
The Hate U Give, adapted from the novel of the same name, follows Starr Carter, a young black girl living dual lives. She spends her school days putting on a façade at Williamson Prep, a private school in the ‘good’ part of town, attended by predominantly rich white students. When school ends, she goes home to Garden Heights, a friendly but poor neighborhood where, as Starr put it, kids go to school to get jumped, high or pregnant. Her two worlds collide when she witnesses the shooting of her childhood friend Khalil by a police officer during a questionable traffic stop. The story of Khalil’s death makes national news and Starr grapples with whether she wants to publicly come forward as the sole witness. She fears reprisal from both within and outside of her community; worrying that her Williamson classmates will view her as a charity case from the wrong side of town, and concerned that the Garden Heights drug-dealing gang will target her and her family.
This story is as much a coming of age story as it is a commentary on police brutality. As viewers listen to Starr’s narration in the movie’s early scenes, we learn that she doesn’t quite fit into either of her two worlds; she doesn’t engage in the antics of her Garden Heights peers, nor can she truly be herself at school. At Williamson, she puts on an accommodating, agreeable façade to avoid being labelled a ghetto, angry black girl. She refrains from using slang or getting angry and constantly smiles at everyone so that her white classmates don’t see her as threatening. She outlines a truth known by the black community – she simply doesn’t have the same leeway to express anger or use slang as her white counterparts (setting the tone for further discussions about the leeway that people of colour don’t have in society). As Starr decides how to move forward with Khalil’s death, she also finds herself on a journey to find her own voice.
The movie’s powerful opening scene shows a young Starr and her two brothers being given The Talk by their father, Maverick; not about the birds and the bees, but what to do when – not if, but when – they are stopped by a police officer. In painstaking detail, he goes through the importance of keeping their hands out in plain sight, not making any sudden movements, providing their ID calmly when requested, and politely answering with a respectful “yes, sir” and “no, sir”. Starr’s mother Lisa is visibly uncomfortable, not wanting her children to be exposed to these ugly realities at such a young age. But Maverick is resolute that his children know what they’re up against, and ends the conversation by giving them a list of their legal rights, directing them to memorize it carefully. Maverick’s insistence on having this conversation highlights an important truth known by black parents – these instructions can quite literally mean the difference between life and death for their children.
For some viewers (including myself), this conversation is completely unrelatable; some may even find it fictionalized. But it’s a staple conversation in black households, with its importance underscored by the recent rash of shootings of unarmed black men. The very nature of this discussion highlights just how different the lived experiences of African-Americans are. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on social issues and have faced certain microaggressions by virtue of being a woman of colour. But I can firmly say that I’ve never had to think about how I would act if I were stopped by police; I also feel confident that any sudden movements I make during a traffic stop likely wouldn’t result in a fatal shooting. This opening scene forces viewers to check their own privilege and come to terms with the disparity in how police exercise their power.
(On an interesting side note, the young actors playing Maverick’s children didn’t actually rehearse this scene. The director intentionally shot it unrehearsed to capture their genuine, raw emotions while being given The Talk. The scene turned out beautifully, capturing the innocence of children being slowly plucked away as they learn about the realities of the world they live in.)
The situation that Maverick warned Starr about indeed comes about during Khalil’s traffic stop. In a scene that’s powerful, heartbreaking and incredibly frustrating to watch, Starr and Khalil are driving home when a white officer pulls them over, demands to see Khalil’s ID and asks pointed questions about their whereabouts. As a viewer, it’s hard not to get angry as this scene unfolds; we know that the pair hadn’t been doing anything wrong and the officer seemed unnecessarily harsh as he spoke with them and made blatant inferences about why Starr was with Khalil. He demands that Khalil step outside and place his hands against the car while the officer goes to his cruiser to run his license.
Throughout the stop, Starr dutifully follows the instructions given to her by her father all those years ago, placing her hands out on the dashboard and urging Khalil to do the same. Khalil on the other hand, takes a far more laissez-faire approach and treats the stop as a joke, feeling (perhaps rightfully) that if he wasn’t doing anything wrong, there was no need to worry.
The tension mounts as Khalil jokes around and a visibly stressed Starr tells him to stand still and keep his hands out. Khalil ignores her pleading and reaches in for his hairbrush. The officer mistakes this fateful hairbrush for a weapon and fires three fatal shots.
The acting alone makes this scene an incredible cinematic moment, with Starr’s anguish tugging at your heartstrings as she realizes the gravity of the officer’s actions. But what makes this scene so compelling is the knowledge that its not simply a well-done fictionalized scene made for Hollywood. It’s a strong case of art imitating life, and the scores of similar police shootings lead to the uncomfortable realization that this is exactly how the shootings of unarmed black men happen. Whether it’s reaching for a hairbrush or walking in a neighborhood while wearing a hoodie, it’s the story that we’ve seen in the news countless times, and to see it come to life in theatres is unnerving.
Following Khalil’s shooting, the movie explores the nuances of police shootings, the biases held by those in power and the uneven playing field that African-Americans face. Set against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, we see subtle nods to the stories that inspired the movement; Starr’s repeated donning of her hoodie harkened back to the Trayvon Martin shooting, and later in the movie, Starr is heard saying “I can’t breathe”, the same last words uttered by Eric Garner (note: I have no actual proof that these were intentional references, but I refuse to believe they were coincidental).
As the sole witness, Starr is taken to the police station to provide a statement, where the unsympathetic investigators focused heavily on Khalil’s actions and involvement in drug dealing. It’s infuriating to watch but reflects yet another uncomfortable reality: it’s far easier to blame the victim rather than focus on the conduct of the man who pulled the trigger.
The story of Khalil’s shooting proves polarizing and brings out the best and worst in Starr’s friends. While her friend Maya and boyfriend Chris prove incredibly supportive, Starr sees the subtly racist side to her white friend Hailey. Hailey’s flippant comments about how “the officer’s life matters too” is a thought echoed by many who protest the BLM movement (and who often cite the comically ill-informed phrase “All Lives Matter”). Hailey later goes on to make unwarranted critiques of Khalil’s drug dealing, saying that he eventually would have died anyway. Her repeated justification of the officer’s actions reflects an important reality for Starr to learn: no matter how innocent a black victim may have been, and no matter how rash a white officer’s actions were, there will always be a contingent that will blame the victim.
Starr’s discovery of Hailey’s true nature is a timely and relatable narrative given the divisive Trump era. With reports of deteriorating marriages and friendships sparked by diverging feelings over Trump, the truth that Starr must acknowledge about her own friend hits close to home. Politics and social justice have long been polarizing topics, but the events of recent years have brought out new sides to our acquaintances that we may not have previously realized existed. There is of course no need to only surround yourself with people who agree with everything you say — but when you’re no longer aligning on basic fundamental principles, it’s a sign that the friendship has run its course. Starr arrives at that conclusion with Hailey in a subplot that likely resonated with many.
The key point of this movie comes out in a short scene with Starr and her police officer uncle Carlos (played surprisingly well by Common). He explains to her the various factors that go through an officer’s mind when they’re conducting a stop — is it nighttime? Can he see? Is there a girl with a male? Does she look like she’s possibly been harmed? Is the officer working alone? Is the person they’re speaking to being argumentative? And most importantly, does it look like that person is suddenly reaching for a weapon?
This scene highlights an important reality faced by police officers: they simply don’t always know what they’re dealing with. With Carlos’ reasoning, it’s perfectly logical for an officer to use his gun — but Starr asks the question that can’t be ignored: if her uncle stopped a white man who was in a suit and a nice car, and that man made a sudden movement, would the officer shoot, or first tell him to put his hands up? Carlos doesn’t immediately answer and Starr presses him. He finally admits that he would ask a white man to raise his hands before resorting to firing his gun, adding that “we live in a complicated world”.
This is ultimately what the movie’s message boils down to. Yes, officers have to be careful. Yes, they need to be mindful of the risks and be on the lookout for weapons. But the protests against racial profiling and the BLM movement hinge on this one fact that can’t be ignored — police officers do not apply force equally. Plain and simple. Multiple studies confirm that police officers are far more likely to apply more force against black individuals compared to white individuals. (And for my Canadian readers, these findings aren’t limited to the US.) This translates to officers being quicker to fire their gun, quicker to subject black individuals to unnecessary (and sometimes unlawful) searches and apply more physical force than they would against a white person. As noted by a lawyer later on in the movie, even while unarmed, the colour of someone’s skin is seen as a weapon in and of itself, leading police to jump to an excessive amount of force.
I recommend that everyone see this movie for this scene alone, because it’s an important reality for many to be aware of. It’s often argued that if someone is breaking the law, it’s reasonable for police to take whatever measures are necessary. But this overly simple argument doesn’t take into account the nuances of how police decide when and how much force to use. And this line of thinking certainly glosses over the fact that a white person could be doing the exact same thing and receive vastly different treatment. Therein lies the message of Black Lives Matter. It doesn’t mean that only black lives matter — it simply means that black lives matter too, and police shouldn’t be so quick to treat them as disposable by firing a gun for every sudden movement.
Was this movie perfectly done? Certainly not. Being an adaptation from a book, it packed in a few too many storylines and progressed at a rushed pace. I personally would have preferred if the entire subplot about the drug lord had been taken out, and had the movie focus solely on the nuances of racial profiling and police brutality. The brief scene with Starr and Carlos needed a lot more unpacking, as that was the strongest message to convey to viewers who may not realize the discrepancies in how police exercise their powers. The riot scene also had hints of cheesiness, and the speech that Starr gave on the hood of the car wasn’t as powerful or moving as I expected given the intensity of the moment. And in a move that felt a bit too cliche, Starr debuts her natural hair at the end of the movie; a measure surely intended to signify her acceptance of her roots, but it felt just a little too trite and overdone.
But ultimately, these critiques stem from how the book was written, forcing the filmmakers to follow suit. Overall, it’s a fantastic movie with a strong message, great acting and uncomfortable truths. It’s a difficult story to tell, and unfortunate that there is a need to tell this story at all. But the movie explores complex issues with nuanced sensitivity and and leaves a strong impact long after the credits roll.