Starr Carter (Amanda Stenberg) is always switching between environments. The first one is the poor, working-class, mainly Black neighbourhood where she lives with her parents (Regina Hall, Russel Horsby) and brothers (Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright). The other is the rich, mostly White, private school she attends. The code-switching Starr practices is tested when she is witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil, played by Algee Smith (Detroit) at the hands of a White police officer. Now facing pressures (and threats) from all sides of her society, Starr must get up and stand up, find her voice and speak her truth for all that is right in the world.
From Tamir Rice to Trayvon Martin; from Rodney King to Eric Garner; “same story, different name” says April Ofrah (Issa Rae), a representative of an organisation that wants justice for police brutality victims, including Khalil. As a Black man who grew up in a small industrial town in England, I cannot begin to understand the plight of Black Americans. Yet, I recognise the concepts of code-switching by Starr, as I, too, was the only Black face in a private school. I, too, have been racially profiled by police and I spent most of my days with Whites; this young man toned down his blackness to fit in. Retrospectively, I see that as giving scope to White fragility.
“Williamson’s Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto” and neither did I in the UK. “And when I’m here I’m Starr version two” she continues. Nonetheless, Britain has its own problems like the sheer number of Black and Asian youths who die in police custody. America had Jim Crow Laws, Civil Rights, and slave codes (making it legal to kill a Black person), whilst race riots in the UK burned brazen in the 1970s and 1980s, preceded by Enoch Powell’s River of Blood (1968), with Apartheid in South Africa. And to understand Black people’s relationship with the police, it goes back to the Slave Trade, as depicted in 13TH, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma).
Based on the novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give tells some universal truths about being of colour in Europe and America, discussing concepts like code-switching, racial profiling (not just by police) and cultural appropriation, in conjunction to poly-racial friendship groups. The confrontation between Starr and Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) was interesting to watch, showing the underlying prejudices that some internalise. Some choose not to see race, which in itself is disregarding millions of people’s experiences of the world. There’s one scene in particular between these characters which felt like a nod to Do the Right the Thing.
The Hate U Give is about more than just Khalil. “It’s about Black people, poor people, everybody at the bottom” says Starr. She lives in a rough neighbourhood. She says the local high school is where “you go to get drunk, high, pregnant or killed.” She goes to the elite private school where her classmates appropriate the language, clothes and culture of Black America. Starr number two knows she has to be polite, articulate and well-spoken around White people. “Slang makes them look cool but makes me look hood”, she says. This is code-switching. She’s a model pupil and well-liked but the bigoted comments flow when she’s seen with her White boyfriend (KJ Apa).
When Khalil is shot reaching for his hairbrush, it’s both distressing for the viewer and for Starr. Especially in what is a YA drama, a coming-of-age story, a teen film. Director George Tillman Jr. (Notorious) does not let up. He does not underplay it or soften the blow for audiences, swiftly followed by a dehumanising police interview who victim-blame Khalil for getting shot. They then proceed to try to build a criminal case against him, and by extension Starr, rather than the real crime – a police officer has shot a seventeen year-old boy in cold blood. This film is not anti-police. Starr has many conversations with her police-officer uncle (Common). It’s anti-police brutality.
From “The Talk” to Black masculinity to the necessity of protest (when the state won’t pick up the slack), The Hate U Give is well-written, well-directed and well-acted. It leaves a lump in your throat. It’s a social comment on police brutality and what it means to be Black in Europe and America, going in on race and identity politics in basic terms, in an effort to make everyone understand that this is not a black or white problem. It’s a people problem.