Amandla Stenberg gives a starmaking performance in this heated look at racial injustice through high school eyes
A simmering, topical examination of racial politics, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement — all filtered through a teenage lens — "The Hate U Give" is open about its emotions and its earnestness, and is all the more resonant as a result.
Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in "The Hunger Games," gives a breakout performance as Starr Carter, a teen trapped between the poor black neighborhood where she lives and the preppy white high school she attends.
Based on the 2017 young adult best seller by Angie Thomas, "The Hate U Give" sets up these two realities with rich details and vibrant world-building.
Starr gives a guided tour of her life and those in it in her own voice, explaining the high school in her neighborhood is only good for getting jumped, high, pregnant or killed. At her school, Williamson Prep, she has to adapt to her surroundings and become "Williamson Starr," who speaks properly and behaves in such a manner that she "gives no one a reason to call her ghetto."
The snappy dialogue pops (screenwriter Audrey Wells died of cancer last week), and "The Hate U Give" starts off with so much zip it can be seen as a modern riff on "Clueless."
Then the plot kicks into motion when Starr witnesses the murder of her friend, Khalil, at the hands of a white police officer, who guns him down during a routine traffic stop when Khalil reaches for a comb.
Khalil is only on screen for a brief time but his character looms over the entire film, and the Saginaw-born Algee Smith ("Detroit") gives him the presence needed for such an integral role. It's a small but major part, and Smith is electrifying.
Starr must decide whether or not she'll testify against the officer. She's encouraged by her police officer uncle, Carlos (Common), but it threatens to expose her at school and blow up her carefully balanced universe.
Starr learns the importance of community and activism as "The Hate U Give" builds and its often heavy messaging begins driving the story.
But there's so much good in "The Hate U Give" that it makes up for its over-sincerity, which "Barbershop" and "Soul Food" director George Tillman Jr. sometimes lets boil over into melodrama.
Not all of its characters are as fleshed out as others. Anthony Mackie's drug lord character, for instance, is as menacing as a villain in a music video, and as thinly characterized. And Starr's prep school peers — including "Riverdale's" KJ Apa as Starr's boyfriend and Sabrina Carpenter as her friend, Hailey — feel like undercooked cliches.
But when it's on, it's on. Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby shine as Starr's parents; Hornsby's (NBC's "Grimm") chilling opening scene, where he teaches his children how to talk to police officers in a kind and respectful manner, sets the tone for the film.
Hornsby's character is the emotional center of the film; when encouraging Starr to do the right thing, he tells her, "shine your light. I ain't name you Starr by accident."
The title of "The Hate U Give" comes from 2Pac and his T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. mantra, which he said stood for "the hate u give little infants (expletive) everybody."
"The Hate U Give" is trying to break that cycle, and believes that it has the power to make a change. Optimism like that is rare in the movies, and should be encouraged when it's executed this well.
'The Hate U Give'
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language
Running time: 132 minutes