The most worthwhile aim of director George Tillman, Jr.’s (“Notorious”) ambitious adaption of Angie Thomas’s multifaceted 2017 YA novel “The Hate U Give” is its complex portrayal of modern-day activism. Though the film often struggles against the constraints of homage to its source text, the film still succeeds in making this eloquent political statement all its own, and such a statement could not have come at a better time. In an era where the socio-political climate ask questions like “What do Americans stand for?” and “Can we believe anything we see or hear?” the film refuses to shy away from them. In its brashness, it works to rebuild the reputation of American civil society and restore needed momentum to truth.
Riffing on Tupac’s “Thug Life” — i.e. “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody” — the film follows Black teenager Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, “Everything, Everything”) as she reels from this hate with which she has been given since birth. The narrative addresses the range of this hate, from the micro-aggressions Starr endures at the hands of her predominantly white classmates at the elite prep school she attends, to the explicit racism at the turning point of the film: when Starr is the sole witness to the murder of her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith, “Detroit”) at the hands of a white cop.
The latter trauma forces Starr to undertake an agonizing but vital journey in pursuit of a genuine, productive, justice-centered breed of activism that will be familiar to some audience members but epiphanic to others. Along the way, she gains exposure to ideal, real and counterfeit activism — alongside the confidence to build her own vision thereof.
Lawyer April Ofrah (Issa Rae, “Insecure”), who mentors Starr as she decides whether she will testify before the grand jury that will determine whether the cop who killed Khalil will be indicted, is the representative of ideal activism. While some characters in the film came across as little more than mouthpieces to articulate themes the storytellers hadn’t the time to convey through characters’ action, Rae’s performance stands out. Her speeches are among the most memorable points in the film’s 2:12 runtime, especially her impassioned defense of nonviolent protest as an ideal protest at Khalil’s funeral. She raises a particularly resonant question in this speech as well: How can Black people ever be seen as unarmed if their skin is considered a weapon? She thus charges the media with the task of deescalating violence, challenging the media to stop weaponizing race.
Tillman, Jr. also stresses the oft-distorted realities of activism through ground-level shots of protest scenes. These unmediated scenes reimagine resistance. In one, resistance is chanting the names of the unjustly killed in the streets. In another, resistance is holding up your cell phone — nonviolently policing the police. In a climactic scene and affirmation of Stenberg’s talent, resistance is standing on the hood of a car, screaming a eulogy of your murdered friend into a megaphone while police ready the tear gas. One constant, heartening variable across these scenes of resistance is the instrumental role youth play in them.
Imposter activism appears in two forms. First, we see it in those who selfishly pretend to stand for just causes. Starr’s white classmates embody this treachery in a particularly sickening scene where Starr’s friends reveal that their primary motivation for attending a protest for Khalil’s case is so they can leave school early. The second form appears in those who misrepresent protest efforts to undermine it. Tillman, Jr. carefully juxtaposes the raw scenes of civil disobedience with the media-packaging thereof, exposing the disparities between activism and its imposter dominating television news.
Herein lies a weakness in the film, however. While some of its deliberate ambiguities were productive — for instance, the moral ambiguity of every character subverted the mass media’s reliance on simply casting figures as good and evil to neglect the more complex systems of evil which individuals either consent to or resist — others were detrimental. An inordinate number of subplots (the most confounding of which focused on Starr’s white boyfriend) and contrived scenes that served as little more than an homage to Thomas’ novel ate up time, leaving audiences in want of more direct evaluations of the media’s role in systemic issues.
Nonetheless, the necessity of the film’s well-argued message about activism renders it a film not only worth seeing but perhaps obligatory if we hope to reinvigorate civil society.