t's always going to be a risky proposition to build a broad, unsubtle youth "message film" around the very real issue of police brutality against black people in the United States.
Such a film walks a tightrope: balancing the very real possibility that your "teachable moment" is a triumph, or otherwise painfully missing the mark in representing the community at risk. Thankfully, YA film The Hate U Give more or less achieves the former, constructing a bold, deliberate, but nevertheless engaging treatise on modern race relations for young audiences.
Adapted from Angie Thomas' bestseller, The Hate U Give stars Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games, The Darkest Minds) as Starr, a bright, 90s-loving black teenager living in a predominantly black neighbourhood caught between oppression from ever-prowling cops and a lively gang contingent. When her childhood friend is shot during a police stop after a party, Starr is forced into a national struggle to assert the importance and dignity of black lives.
From the title, cropped from a Tupac Shakur lyric – "the hate u give little infants f***s everybody" (translating to "THUG-LIFE"), it's clear the film has very specific intentions – to educate younger audiences about the thorny issue of police brutality by exposing the often under-represented point of view of those suffering from it. It's a noble and desperately needed message, and The Hate U Give offers up a compelling, disturbing but still teen-friendly introduction to the topic.
verything about The Hate U Give skews toward the on-the-nose, purposefully. Its intentions are to make the subtext of the lingering threat of violence black people in the US are forced to contend with every day the driving force of the film – and that means it can be a little unsubtle.
This leads to some uncomfortable, even potentially triggering sequences – the moment of the shooting of a black teenager itself is fuel for a larger debate about whether it is ever okay to use real racial violence as an on-screen tool for character development – and occasionally fails to gell with the more traditionally YA, high school elements of the film.
And yet, this also can be construed as part of the point of the film – the fact that young, innocent people are forced to contend with profoundly adult issues of police violence and gun control as well as who to go to prom with is by its very nature unnatural and upsetting.
The film is emotively directed by George Tillman jnr and filled to the brim with strong performances – most especially Stenberg, who must carry both elements of the story on her shoulders – but also Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby as Starr's parents whose conflicting parenting styles lead to some fascinatingly tense moments (New Zealand's own KJ Apa, meanwhile, is slightly underutilised as Starr's on-the-downlow boyfriend).
The Hate U Give cleverly provides meaningful dialogue about one of the most profound issues of the modern era by presenting it through the vessel of a laugh-and-cry teen drama. One to watch with the kids.
VERDICT: A broad but passionate YA drama that mostly manages to handle a tender subject with sensitivity and wisdom.
RATING: Four stars.