“Dear Mama, can you save me? And fuck peace/
‘Cause the streets got our babies, we gotta eat/
No more hesitation, each and every black male’s trapped/
And they wonder why we suicidal running ’round strapped/
Mr. Police, please try to see/
That there’s a million motherfuckers stressin’ just like me”
– 2Pac, “Only God can Judge Me”, All Eyez on Me (1996)
*I saw The Hate U Give at an advanced screening on Wed. – 10 October at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco
It takes an incalculable amount of stupidity to miss the mark the way this film does.
It’s bad enough that it’s littered with tv-level dialogue throughout; it’s bad enough that the editor is clearly in need of Ritalin; and it’s bad enough that it suffers from such tonal whiplash that an ill-advised sitcom romance subplot is interrupted by a drive-by. But what really fucking angers me is that this fucking film has the nerve – the unmitigated gall – to make a film about Black people being murdered by White cops… and end it with the blame placed squarely on the shoulders of the very Black people who are getting killed. It falls back on The Right’s favorite bullshit excuse: that Black people wouldn’t have to worry about violence if they would just pick themselves up by the bootstraps.
To repeat this long-since-disproven theory is ignorance; to use it as the finale of a film about Black death-via-police (one directed by a Black man, written by a white woman) is a fucking insult.
And yet, I probably wouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction to this bullshit if not for the fact that 1) being harassed by cops for my Black skin is something I know all too well, and 2) a good 2/3 of the film are on the right track. I’m not kidding: more than half of this movie is a touching dramatization of the anger we feel being helpless against a police system trying to kill us. It gets so much right – sans the cheesy dialogue – that it’s all the more angering when it goes completely wrong.
Starr lives in two worlds. In the evenings and weekends, she doesn’t stand out as a native of the all-Black inner-city neighborhood of Garden Heights. During the week, she’s consciously trying not to stand out at the mostly-white private school of Williamson. Her friends are white, her boyfriend is white, and her reputation is white. She’s never had a problem keeping her two worlds separate. Until now.
After a party in the Heights, she’s driven home by her childhood friend Khalil. Through no fault of their own, they’re pulled over by a white cop with an itchy trigger finger. The volatile cocktail of the cop’s bigotry and Khalil’s hubris result in the latter winding up dead in front of Starr. As the only witness to the shooting, she soon finds herself wanted by angry cops, supportive Black activists, and a local kingpin with a chip on his shoulder.
It isn’t long before Starr realizes that her two worlds aren’t colliding, they’re simply revealing the one world she’s been part of all along.
There’s so much this film gets right. It opens with a scene where Starr’s father, Maverick – a former banger turned shop-owner – is giving his kids “the talk”: how to survive an encounter with the police. He tells them that it’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “when”, so he advises them on how to be as non-threatening as possible so as to most likely come out alive. There’s another scene where Maverick’s cop brother, Carlos, tries to explain the police point-of-view in a traffic stop: that they have to make split-second decisions that shouldn’t result in death, so long as the perp cooperates. Starr catches him in his hypocrisy by getting him to admit that he – a Black police officer who grew in the same neighborhood as she – instinctually considers Black people more of a threat than whites.
When the film has scenes like those, it’s on fire. These are the moments when the dialogue clicks, the performances ring true, and the emotions are visceral. Scenes like those and ones of Starr acting a certain way for her white friends will connect with any Black kid (myself included) who’s ever tried their best not to “act Black” in front of their-white-friends-who-are-trying-to-do-that-very-thing. Even the hypocrisy of Starr’s friends – especially her blonde BFF Hailey – taking a “Blue Lives Matter” approach to Khalil’s shooting sound like conversations I’ve heard on a daily basis.
Then it all goes wrong.
I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much of the story’s faults can be blamed on (Black) author Angie Thomas. Nevertheless, (white) screenwriter Audrey Wells’ pedigree as a rom-com writer hinders this film at every turn. She can’t simply have Starr feel more and more disconnected from her high school life, no – Wells needs an unnecessary prom scene. Even when Wells gets it right by having Starr’s boyfriend, Chris, pull the “I don’t see color” card, Wells ruins it with an idiotic “meet the parents” scene. In a scene straight out of the Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher “comedy” Guess Who, we watch comedy die a slow, painful death as Chris meets Starr’s father, who mistakes the boy for her chauffeur. Wells has no idea how to use comedy to relieve dramatic tension. Oh, and as I mentioned above, the failed comedy of the scene is interrupted by a drive-by.
If you’re wondering who it was shooting at them, then you’ve stumbled upon the film’s other big fuck-up. As I mentioned, Maverick used to be a banger. The guy he worked for, King (Anthony Mackie), is now big time and employed Khalil. King now fears Starr will reveal this, but hesitates as his son is her half-brother. When King is kept on the sidelines to illustrate the few “business” opportunities in the inner-city, he’s effective. But when Wells and Tillman try to turn this film into a full-blown action flick, it fails.
The film’s version of “Happily Ever After” is the white cop getting of scot-free, but King going to jail. I’m not even fucking kidding. The film hypocritically undermines its own points about how Black people are fucked by the system to end saying Black people are better off once “the bad ones” are gone.
If that isn’t an opinion definitive of white privilege, I don’t know what is?
I haven’t been this pissed off at a film since I suffered through Stuck, but at least that piece of shit was consistently bad from its opening frames. The Hate U Give is bad because there’s a pretty good film wrapped around the shitty one, but the shitty one is still there. You decide which type of shitty is worse.
This is a film that should celebrate Black womanhood and the legacy of an influential Black artist (2Pac), but ends blaming Black people for being the victims of crimes by the police. That’s not just missing the point, that’s right-wing propaganda.