A Star is Really Born in “The Hate U Give”

“A Star is Born” may be playing at your local multiplex but if you really want to see a star bursting into life, head down the hall to the theater that’s playing ‘The Hate U Give’ and witness the miraculous arrival that is Amandla Stenberg.

Taking on the lead role of (no pun intended) Starr Carter in Angie Thomas’ phenomenally successful YA novel of the same name, Stenberg possesses a remarkable charisma and a face that conveys nuance with whiplash speed. Her eyes sparkle with vitality and her warm smile is irresistible when she’s flirting at a party and intriguing when she uses it at her school to mask the turmoil she’s struggling to contain.

The school is Williamson Prep, where mostly white students from privileged backgrounds walk pristine hallways with designer backpacks and pseudo-nonchalant dabblings in black slang. Starr, who is African-American, and lives in a primarily black community with economic challenges, must try to navigate this “white space” and adjust her smile just to survive the micro-aggressions. Her version of “eyes on the prize” is to use the school and make the most of the opportunity her parents are sacrificing to give her. Starr is caught in the trap of self-monitoring: not being “too black” at school, too “bougie” back home. The school halls and city streets may be wide but Starr walks them on a code-switching tightrope.

When Kahlil (Algee Smith), a charismatic young man and a childhood friend drives Starr home from a party she wasn’t enjoying much anyway, she’s caught between her attractions and her allegiances; will she fan the spark she has with her familiar crush, or stay with Chris (KJ Apa), her sincere but privileged boyfriend at Williamson? That core tension remains and is only exacerbated when she witnesses Kahlil being shot and killed by a white policeman after a bogus traffic stop. Starr is a character under increasing pressure from all sides: from her wary parents (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby), from an activist lawyer (Issa Rae) with a Black Lives Matter type-movement who urges her to testify, from her increasingly confused and alienated best friends at school, from Chris, and from King (Anthony Mackie), gang leader who wants Starr to stay silent about Kahlil’s involvement with selling drugs. Navigating her way through these potentially explosive landmines is the film’s dramatic through-line.

Director George Tillman and Screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed just recently) do a remarkable job of not only keeping a multitude of characters more or less intact from a beloved novel, but also making their relationships to each other and to Starr clear and defined. Even more impressively, nearly everyone gets their due, revealing motivations that keep us from judging them simplistically. Hornsby is both forceful and tender as Maverick, Starr’s father and a former Black Panther who is both practical and philosophical. Regina Hall exudes such a natural warmth and wisdom we sympathize with her struggle to embolden her daughter as a young woman yet protect her from exploitation. In a two-hour film, nearly every character gets their due. (With the notable exception, possibly, of Starr’s Williamson teammate Heather, played by Sabrina Carpenter. She represents the “But-I’m-not-a-racist-because-I-quote-hiphop” white friend, and she exists to help Starr eventually set her boundaries, a valuable point. Carpenter is fine; too bad the film strands her as the least nuanced character.)

As one of my teen male students said after he saw “The Hate U Give”, “It’s a lot of movie. A lot!” I know what he means. It feels like there’s more than one ending; the subplots cover everything from the prom to the courtroom; and there’s at least one too many comic relief moments meant to show how closely knit the Carter family is, or cringey moments with the kids rolling their eyes in “ewwws” over their parents’ surprisingly frank erotic endearments.

And yet. This movie is important, and gets so many things right that what it doesn’t do perfectly seems apt; American racism and division can’t be tied up with a bow. There’s a heroism in trying to grapple with it in mainstream entertainment and putting young people in the position of considering their choices, and their involvement. It’s challenging to depict the birthing of a social conscience; films that do it with any success, like Martin Ritt’s “Norma Rae” or Ken Loach’s films, require an actor who can show us a rapidly developing inner life and the flickers of an awakening social conscience.

It’s in this respect we should all be grateful for Amandla Stenberg. You get the feeling she knows this territory, the small and big hurts a black teen endures just to get through the day or get an education. She has to carry the kind of film that is too often dismissed as a ‘message movie’ and elevate it to a type of art. Stenberg, with her charm, her dynamism, her instincts and her technique, more than meets the demands. When the time comes for Starr to choose between a megaphone and a gun, we see her, we know her. In “The Hate U Give”, Amandla Stenberg creates a character whose voice is instantly amplified, and our hopes rise that maybe through the depiction of a school teen’s drama, it will be heard.

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