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In ‘The Hate U Give’ a young woman grapples with two identities—who she is in a predominantly black community and who she pretends to be at a mostly-white private prep school.


Algee Smith and Amandla Stenberg in ‘The Hate U Give’ // Photo Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) wields a great deal of power, and I’m not talking about untapped potential. As the title character of The Hate U Give, the YA novel by Angie Thomas, which has been adapted by screenwriter Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun) and director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food), Starr tells her own story, exercising degrees of self and socio-cultural awareness that marry the steely and defiant Black Power consciousness of her parents Maverick ‘Mav’ (Russell Hornsby) and Lisa (Regina Hall) with a post-racial, Obama-era millennial perspective.

She explains the dual identity situation she finds herself in. There is Starr who wakes up each morning in the loving embrace of a family and community that looks and feels like home—the place where black folks, in pursuit of a fading middle-class American dream, struggle to make ends meet and sometimes find themselves making questionable choices to get by. That might mean turning a blind eye to dirty deeds; others play a more active role and pay the consequences, like her father—a grocery store owner who was previously involved in a gang, but walked away from that life.

But there’s a second version of Starr: an old-school striver who attends a private prep school where she’s only one of a few people of color; she’s constantly aware of the race and cultural divide because, in this world, her white schoolmates have the privilege of indulging in “performances” of blackness—speaking in culturally appropriated dialect, obsessing over status markers like shoes, sports and entertainment-making abilities—that Starr understands that she cannot display in this setting. She needs to develop and maintain a cover of white “authenticity” and downplay her true self.

It is not hard to equate this dynamic interpersonal conflict to that of superheroes as they don masks to battle evil, but walk among us every day as regular folks. Starr actively seeks to be an “invisible” woman at school. Like Clark Kent using glasses to prevent everyone from knowing he’s Superman, Starr’s school uniform and proper English become a cover up. And, in truth, her disguise is as flimsy as his. As she floats down the halls, viewers wait for her true self to be realized.

Her two worlds collide when Starr encounters an old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), at a neighborhood party and the two steal away during a crisis point in the evening. Khalil whisks her to safety and reminds her of their shared childhood feelings for one another. It is a magical interlude that quickly turns tragic, when Khalil gets pulled over by a white police officer and is then killed in what should no longer be classified as an accident.

The all-too familiar situation triggers Starr to recognize that a change needs to come.

Continuing to mine this comic book aesthetic, the shooting awakens a sense of greater responsibility in Starr. Although she has been exposed to the rhetoric of militancy from her father and the example of self-sufficiency from her mother, Khalil’s killing brings it all home. She starts to see how the power of a voice can matter.

Along the way, as the police and a community activist (Issa Rae) wage a war over Starr’s soul, this young woman begins to merge the two seemingly-disparate sides of herself, integrating her black identity into her prep school world and vice versa. The flashpoints create discomfort for the supporting players in her life on either side, but what Wells and Tillman reveal—perfectly embodied by Stenberg —is a young woman ready, willing and able to set the world aflame.

The Hate U Give – THUG – incorporates gangster elements, social media controversy, and heavy-handed takes on identity politics, but at its core is the story of a young woman seizing control over her narrative. In many ways, Starr, as a character, mirrors the journey of Stenberg, a rising star who has, thus far in her short career, balanced along a narrow cultural tightrope— more often than not seeking to appeal to mainstream sensibilities. With this project, Stenberg gives voice to an under-explored side of herself, which may send her blazing off into the heavens.

(In theaters) (PG-13) Grade: B+