Stealth Conservatism in a Black Lives Matter Movie

Amandla Stenberg and Algee Smith in The Hate U Give (20th Century Fox)
A surprisingly even-handed treatment of a reliably inflammatory topic.

As The Hate U Give reached its climax, I had to reach down to the floor. There it was, right down there with the soda residue and the spilled popcorn: My jaw. Did I really just see a Black Lives Matter movie, in which an unarmed black youth is shot and killed by a white cop, build up to a scene in which a black cop explains what goes through the mind of a police officer in such a situation, when a suspect repeatedly disobeys lawful commands, and explains that he would have shot the guy too? This film is going to make Sheriff David Clarke jump out of his seat and cheer.

The Hate U Give looks like the bait-and-switch movie of the year. Even its title gets turned on its ear: “The hate u give little infants,” opined Tupac Shakur, “f***ks everybody.” (The letters form the acronym “thug life.”) Yet the conclusion of the movie’s teen heroine, Starr (a terrific Amandla Stenberg, who has a smile of pure sunshine), amid much discussion of how black people are forced into crime by circumstance, is that the hate we give is the problem. Who are we? Maybe it’s black people. Maybe it’s everyone. “We” have the power to “break the cycle,” Starr urges us to accept, as she and her neighbors cooperate with the police they’ve been protesting, in the process upending a black drug gang.

Based on a young-adult novel, the film by George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor) is a somewhat incoherent melding of teen coming-of-age tropes with a gangsta flick and a message movie about post-Ferguson views of police brutality. Cramming all of these genres together proves to be a challenge that the movie can’t quite solve. The tonal and thematic shifts are jarring.

Starr is torn between her friends in the hood, where she is growing up in a stable middle-class family, and the rich white students at her Catholic private school, where she is the only one who declines to use black slang. Only when she’s back in her home neighborhood can she really relax, but this is a strange attitude given that home is the kind of place where a party ends abruptly because someone pulls out a gun and starts shooting. Encountering a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith), she quickly groks that he’s a drug dealer but goes for a ride with him anyway. When he gets stopped by police, he disobeys several commands and is shot dead after he reaches into the car to pull out an object, which turns out to be a hairbrush.

But Starr’s response to the shooting isn’t really what the movie is about. Inexplicably, the local drug lord (Anthony Mackie), who is a past associate of her dad (Russell Hornsby), orders her not to speak to a grand jury about what she witnessed. Hang on, you’re not supposed to snitch on the police? I thought you weren’t supposed to snitch to the police. The gang leader is infuriated further when she discusses the drug wars in the area during a TV interview, even though she doesn’t say anything that isn’t on the news every night. Cue a revenge saga in which the gang tries to kill Starr and her family, albeit with a peculiar lack of urgency on both sides.

Meanwhile the movie takes leisurely detours into Starr’s relationships with her white friends and her cute white boyfriend — and implicitly rebukes her father for being racist toward the young fellow. Yet the same film features a couple of scenes in which the dad solemnly recites precepts of the Black Panthers. One such proviso is that, as he makes his children repeat after him, they must remember to use “any means necessary” to fight the system. This comes after the father, as he has long predicted, is unjustly hassled by the police and humiliated by being pressed against the window of a restaurant for a body search.

Toward the end, though, during Starr’s mini-journey into activism when she gets mixed up in a Black Lives Matter riot, the scrawled pleas spray-painted on storefronts that the businesses within are “black-owned” come off looking naïve. Starr’s problem is not her relatively mild clashes of culture with the white students, who are mostly friendly to her anyway, and it isn’t police brutality. For black people to put aside their disputes with police and work with them to clean up crime in the black community turns out to be the only solution. Makes sense to me. But I sure didn’t expect to hear it in a Hollywood movie.

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