Witness With Me: A Film Review of The Hate U Give

Last year, I reviewed Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give. Marketed as the Black Lives Matter book, the film rights sold before the copies hit the shelves. With few exceptions, The Hate U Give has remained atop the Young Adult New York Times Bestseller list since its publication. It tells the story of Starr Carter and her psychological, emotional, and altogether world-altering transformation that she undergoes after witnessing a police officer shoot and kill her unarmed friend. The topic of police brutality has galvanized some, been dismissed by others, and made those in the middle uncomfortable, more apt to ignore a reality that they feel does not concern them, more invested in order than justice. School districts have banned the book, citing its anti-police rhetoric, which is only anti-police if you’ve failed to read closely enough.

With the film a foregone conclusion, the question was, how might the book’s message translate to film? It was the potency of an image, though, Emmett Till’s bloated and disfigured corpse, that stirred the whirlwind that was the Civil Rights Movement. The potency of images, video, and sound, the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, spurred three women to remind the world that Black Lives Matter, no matter what the president, or the police say. Critics are now using words like “revolutionary,” “politically charged,” and “necessary” in their reviews, and the film has a certified fresh rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes for its trouble.

We really need to reconsider how much influence we have given to this fruit-based metric system.

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Starr’s father, Maverick, lines up his children on the lawn inside the gate in front of their home. Twilight alights just beyond their shoulders and, like a searchlight, the moon illuminates the grooves on Maverick’s face. He calls out their names like a general assembling his troops, and, like a well-trained squadron, they fall in line. The hum of Garden Heights quiets, and the clarity of Maverick’s voice rings out. He named them, he says, and it was no accident: Sekani—”joy,” Seven—”perfection,” Starr—”light.” Rotten Tomatoes’ seemingly arbitrarily applied algorithms have urged me, a not-a-film-critic, to review the film under a different set of parameters—by its technical perfection, manner of illumination, and joy.

The Princess Bride is the best film adaptation of a novel. That is a fact. Every other movie aspires to that level of artistic and narrative perfection. Few achieve it. I can broker arguments for The Color Purple and The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit films, however, passed through our collective consciousness like a fart on the wind, while it was here, our eyes watered and now that it is gone, forgotten… The Hate U Give is not a perfect movie. But we should not be looking for perfection. There is no perfect solution to the scourge of police brutality. The book from which the film is derived does not give any definitive answers and neither does the film. This is the film’s greatest adaptive achievement. Starr’s character arc is resolved, but as an audience member, I was left with a tingling in my foot, in anticipation of what ought to come next even though I had already read the novel. The film manages to make the stakes of our mutual reckoning with police brutality deeply personal.

In recent years, many in the media have cashed in on the WokeTM movement. Professional activism is big business. I won’t question their sincerity, I do question their effectiveness. Dear White People, Scandal, Law and Order: SVU all have episodes that deal with police brutality, something that has occurred in America as long as Black people have been here. It is ever present, ever traumatic, but is it becoming ever normalized? The mainstream media has a way of diluting ideas and concepts until they have been synthesized in a palatable, relatable stew only reminiscent of the real issue. These shows elicit anger, but there is no understanding. The Hate U Give opens with Maverick giving his children “the talk.”

Seven and Starr are grade school children. Sekhani is only a baby, fussing in his mother’s arms. The film opens with the reality of police brutality, a reality from which children are not immune. And they are children. This is a story about children. It’s the story of Emmett Till, a child whose murder, some would argue, initiated the Civil Rights Movement. Starting the film with the conversation between a father and his children forces the viewer to confront a reality diluted by sensational news stories and cell-phone videos. To be clear, the cell phone videos have illuminated a hidden reality, but there is a risk of becoming desensitized by the proliferation of violence. We need to remind ourselves of the humanity beneath the hashtag.

I cried during this movie. Then again, I cried at the end of Ice Age, so I suppose you can question the level of my emotional engagement in films targeted towards children. There are moments of fathomless sadness in The Hate U Give, but there are also moments where the sadness loosens its grip from your heart, and you breathe, laugh for the joy that occurs in the in between moments where you can catch your breath. The documentary film 13th analyzes the history and propagation of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex as rooted in the locution of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution. It took me three days to watch it. Not because it was long, but because it was hard. The Hate U Give is a book and now a movie with a target audience of twelve to eighteen year olds. Should children have to witness this, they ask. They already do. Many live it. As the credits roll at the end of 13th photos of happy, black people scroll by. Laughing, with their families, alive. Joy. The Hate U Give is a difficult film. I read the book, I wrote about the book and there were no surprises. And still, when the time came, the tears came. But like Starr, the film does not break you. There is grace even in the most dismal circumstances. The balance struck is the most real thing about the film.

Watch this film. Not because it is easy, but because it his hard. Watch it because you are a witness, whether you look or not.