Complicating matters for Starr are a local drug lord who used to work with her father played by Anthony Mackie. The pressure he puts on the community is not only chemical, but also a no-snitching ethos that is brutally enforced even when cases don’t have anything to do with his business, like Starr’s. Mackie plays the character as courteously frank instead of overtly threatening, like he takes no pleasure in enforcing rules that he creates. As the other male influence in Starr’s life, her father knows better than to fall for Mackie’s charisma, and the encounters between the two of them risk further deadly escalation. Hornsby is a titanic presence, instilling his kids with a black power rhetoric that is a seamless blend of authority and paternal love. In his role as father, he uses his front yard as a pulpit, and the two services he conducts from there for his kids are stunners. He never tells Starr what to do but between those scenes and an implied lifetime of earned wisdom, he’s equipped her with the means to come to the best decision.
Stenberg, often playing opposite respected veterans like Hornsby and King, more than holds her own. Tremendously expressive, she runs the gamut from familial and flirtatious bliss to the extremes of agony and fury, demonstrating raw, uncontained emotion in the latter. She crafts multiple personas within a single character and erects recognizable walls around each, walls that come crumbling down in the wake of Khalil’s death. Her carefully-maintained composure is the first to go at her private school, justifiably so in the wake of despicable behavior that she’s perhaps witnessing for the first time from her peers. Friends that she reveals little of herself to reveal themselves to be blinkered and ignorant, while others gleefully use protest marches against police violence as an excuse for a day off of school. The stakes on her life are simply higher, and they’ve made her a more serious person, especially compared to her contemporaries who aren’t attending yet another funeral of a dear friend before they graduate high school.
It’s in those white characters that The Hate U Give stumbles most. The film has thus far avoided bludgeoning talking points, but several soon turn themselves over to the worst clichés of blind liberal or secret racist. Obliviousness seemed like the best way to go, but the film turns Starr’s classmates into sub-antagonists. The one outlier is her boyfriend, played by KJ Aja. The character is a dud that is acknowledged by Starr’s inner monologue as a dud, but she falls for his wavy swoop hair and his corny dance moves. This is fine pre-Khalil’s death, but after, he’s exactly the kind of unserious crutch worthy of jettisoning. The film instead keeps him around long past his sell-by date, even allowing him to get off an unironic ‘I don’t see color’ and not be laughed off the set. The Hate U Give doesn’t owe a lot to its white characters as this film’s not about them, but whatever finesse Audrey Wells’ script previously had goes out the window when the film begins taking aggressive steps to separate Starr from her private school life.
At over two hours, Tillman Jr’s film runs long enough to let the didactic negatives run up on considerable positives. The code switching that Starr engages is communicated well enough in the first act and the longer she sticks around her private school friends who are ill-equipped to fathom what she’s going through, the worse The Hate U Give gets. Those positives, though, stripped out from the rest of the film, would make this an exceptional work. Tillman Jr puts a blue filter over the private school scenes, juxtaposing them with the natural light of Starr’s neighborhood. That kind of choice and the feeling it engenders, of authenticity over falseness, of living more freely in a suboptimal environment, is one that animates the characters of The Hate U Give, and is an apt way of describing the experience of watching it. B-