As a YA writer, I read a lot of YA novels. In fact I would say the majority of my novel-length reading is of stories intended for teenagers and I'm not sure why I enjoy them so much - the stripped-down first-person narrative or relatable characters, the messages told, but probably, mostly the hope; these are generally stories of hope. And I was hopeful when I first picked up the YA phenomenon The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas last year... hopeful to enjoy a story not about white kids, the dominant theme of the genre. But when I picked it up, other than the fore-fronting of a black female narrator, I didn't know anything about the story itself. And it was a jarring first chapter if I recall, full of slang and musical references that were not exactly in my wheelhouse, but I kept reading and got to "the scene" and of course was hooked from then on, reading the entire novel in a matter of days (which is very rare for me). Thomas's novel not only told a YA story from a different perspective than most YA stories, but also told a powerful, crushing story about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement and I think I cried about 20 times while reading (I also laughed!) and I don't necessarily think I left the story with "hope". I am a white male in his 40s so I was not the target audience for this novel and I am an outsider to the experience of Starr, the lead character. But I've spent the past six years dating a younger black man, who grew up in very difference circumstances than Starr, but I couldn't help but get emotional considering the horrible things that happen to young black men and women because of their blackness, and I couldn't wait to bring him to the movie version of the novel, hoping to share that experience with him.
The movie version takes a bit to get to "the scene". But it opens with a powerful kitchen table moment between a pre-teen Starr, her brother Seven, and her parents, getting "the talk", which for many black families is about how to act when pulled over at a traffic stop by the police. I never got that talk as a white kid growing up in the 80s. My boyfriend didn't either (he was raised by a white family in suburbia) but he recalled after the movie that his father once gave him the talk "not everyone will like you" (because of the color of his skin and because of his sexuality) and that he had to be extra careful in life, always keeping that in mind. Either way it's a powerful opening to the film and lays its cards out that this is what this movie is about ... and after a YA-infused narrative introduction into Starr's two lives (one as a black teenager in a poor neighborhood and the other as one of the few black kids at a white prep school, trying to fit in by suppressing anything that would make her seem "ghetto"), we get to the Saturday night Garden Heights party that erupts into violence and ends with a ride home with her long-time best friend Khalil, who she hadn't seen in a while. And then we get "the scene" and I won't spoil it here but even knowing what was coming and even knowing exactly how (the screenplay is very faithful to the novel throughout), I was still emotionally shook up watching the events unfold on the screen. It's a powerful portrayal and Amandla Stenberg's acting throughout shines as the young protagonist but especially in this scene.
The rest of the movie (and novel) is an outflow from that encounter between Khalil, Starr, and the police, and the movie - despite being YA-infused - doesn't pull any punches. This is an engrossing family drama that unflinchingly tells what it's like to live in a community where the police are to be feared, where violence can snatch you up at any second, and where your lives really do not matter to the larger white world, oblivious to the systemic racism keeping you in these conditions and letting white murderers go free just because they where police uniforms. Some of the most emotional scenes for me were the ones when Starr is interacting with her white classmates and boyfriend at the prep school, some well-intentioned like I think I was as a teen, some sounding like any one of Republican-supporting friends today (there aren't many left, actually). But spending the past six years living with and loving deeply someone of color has given me a perspective that my well-intentioned self didn't have back then and I hope that this movie (and the novel, please read the novel!) can give white teenage audiences the same perspective, if only for a short time. This is a message movie, but it's also a compelling drama, it's funny in parts, it's emotional and it's raw and there is no "fall-back crutch" of well, that was a different time, a la The Help or Hidden Figures, this is hardcore modern racism and this is what much of (most of) black America deals with every second of every day, while us privileged white folks live our sheltered lives.
As a movie, it's nearly flawless. The script is incredible and faithful to the novel. The direction is heartfelt and compelling. And the acting -- from Stenberg (a grown-up Rue from the first Hunger Games) to the always amazing Regina Hall as her mother to Russell Hornsby as her father Maverick, a reformed drug-dealer telling truths to his daughter (and the audience) to all the smaller roles filled out perfectly. Even KJ Apa from Riverdale in the thankless role of the "fish out of water" white boyfriend who both makes it all about himself and then is redeemed, he does a great job with the part. I obviously highly recommend the film. It's very emotional to be sure, so bring some tissues, but it's not a "sad" movie by any means and even though it's slightly more than 2 hours it's so gripping throughout you wouldn't even notice. The audience I saw it with, I don't think a single person got up to use the bathroom the entire time. Which is an endorsement of a sort. Anyway, The Hate U Give is a must-watch for all audiences, but especially teens - those who have lived or are living this experience, but more importantly those who are not but need to know why the fuck Colin Kaepernick kneels, and to ignore all the bullshit explaining away of his protest as being somehow about the freaking troops, which is not, and you know it's not, you're just being racist. Sorry, that was a little too soapbox-y for a movie review where Kaep is not even mentioned, but my point is, go see this movie and read the book. Both are brilliant.
This blog belongs to Bill Elenbark.
Lover of songs. Writer of wrongs.