It’s difficult to imagine a movie more aptly aimed at the high school set than director George Tillman Jr.’s teen-lit adaptation The Hate U Give. It’s topical, timely, and tailor made to oversimplify complex social issues into a pat narrative that goes exactly where you’d expect. But if The Hate U Give frequently digresses into stereotype and cliche, it does so in service of a noble aim, and is, at times, surprisingly effective given its narrative shortcomings. Still, one gets the sense of a film on railroad tracks hurtling toward an inevitable conclusion, hamstrung by its own good intentions.
The Hate U Give focuses on the hot-button topic of police shootings of unarmed black people from a highly reductive stance, playing every heartstring it can along the way. Lead Amandla Stenberg carries the film with a confident performance as Starr Carter, the daughter of an ex-gangster-turned-convenience-store-owner (Russell Hornsby) who instills in his children both pride in their blackness and a healthy fear of traffic stops. Her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) wasn’t so fortunate, and when he’s shot and killed for brandishing a hairbrush, things follow the most predictable course possible. Stenberg’s performance goes a long way to redeeming the film’s after-school-special vibe, but when all she has to work with are the broadest possible character traits and a clumsy expository voice-over narration, she can’t really be held responsible for the film’s lack of narrative ingenuity.
There’s no question that The Hate U Give is tackling a sensitive subject with great sincerity, but it also does so with no sense of subtlety. Anthony Mackie plays the heavy as a drug kingpin aptly named “King” — too on the nose by half, both the character’s name and his storyline are indicative of the lack of nuance that plagues the film. Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells may be sticking close to Angie Thomas’ source novel, but their overall approach betrays a lack of confidence in their intended audience’s intelligence and level of sophistication. Do we really need a half-baked romantic melodrama subplot to know that this is aimed at kids? I think they could’ve gotten the idea without having to pander to some hypothetical middle-of-the-bell-curve high schooler.
While there’s a fundamental positivity in the very fact that The Hate U Give is dealing with not only unchecked police violence but also questions of black identity in 21st-century America, there remains a high degree of frustration at the level of attention paid to character development and narrative strategy. The themes are solid, and the message is sound, but when the storytelling comes up short, it makes it difficult to give the film an unequivocal recommendation. While it scores points for its strong lead performance and its capacity to prompt teens’ engagement in an important conversation, The Hate U Give ultimately comes up short by underestimating its audience, and in doing so, it does a disservice to the very people and topics it seeks to address.