BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer
T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E.: The Hate You Gave Little Infants F@#%S Everybody. Meaning, what you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face, that’s Thug Life. – Tupac Shakur
NATIONWIDE — With the ongoing highly publicized assaults on black and brown bodies by police and agents of anti-black discrimination, there is still a reason to reimagine the harsh and painful reality of these crimes.
George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give,” is a tour de force that brings to the screen Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel about the murder of a black teen at the hands of a police officer and the ensuing personal, legal, gangland and political battles fought out in the city where the killing occurs.
TRAILER: “The Hate U Give” official trailer
Thomas’ book was inspired by the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant, as well as other high-profile police and anti-black discriminatory murder cases — including those of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland.
However, those expecting a “Black Lives Matter” retelling (as some reviews have mentioned) should be cautioned. This is a Young Adult novel-turned-film, and it approaches the story from the viewpoint of a 16-year-old who is less than eager to come to grips with the situation she finds herself in.
A riveting visual retelling, the film offers standout performances by lead actress Amandla Stenberg as Starr, the 16-year-old heroine of the story, as well as by Russell Hornsby as her ex-gang member father Maverick and Regina Hall as Starr’s determined, protective and understandably terrified mother Lisa.
The subject matter is comprehensive and challenging – kind of like real life. Once the layers of history from the characters’ past start colliding with the present, we are reminded there is as much trauma and pathology inside black communities as in the fictional Garden Heights, or in Jackson, Miss., where author Thomas grew up or in our own St. Pete as outside of them.
The movie centers on the events surrounding the murder of Starr’s childhood friend Khalil, played by Algee Smith – but there are also a variety of other factors swirling around her that create conflict in the film.
Alongside the dreaded police violence that ends in Khalil’s death, there’s also a “kid from the ghetto code-switching in a white school” element – revealed in Starr’s complex relationships with her white friends – as well as discomfort with her black ones (including childhood friend Kenya, played by Dominique Fishback).
Of course, there are the multiple issues related to the city’s legendary gang, the King Lords – led by Kenya’s dad, King (played by Anthony Mackie). There’s also the uncomfortable dynamic between Starr’s half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and his questionable mother Iesha (Karan Kendrick).
Hip-hop artist/actor Common brings to life the role of Uncle Carlos, the police detective who offered a father figure to Starr while Maverick was imprisoned for gang activities, and who still provides support – even while his uniform ties him to the system in ways that are harmful to the community.
“Insecure” creator and star Issa Rae plays lawyer April Ofrah, the spokesperson for a Black Lives Matter-like activist organization, who steps in to encourage and guide the percolating anger and resentment of the town’s black citizens as the police do nothing to bring the killer to justice.
But it’s ultimately Stenberg’s powerhouse performance as the identity-conflicted and anguished teenager forced to find her voice amid the fray that wraps us into the drama.
Audrey Wells’ screenplay dexterously transposes a 400-plus page novel into a palatable hour and a half long film, and Tillman’s in-your-face handling of explosive scenes of violence – both physical and emotional – will leave you clutching your armrests.
While the material is painful, the film also manages to rise above a torrid ending. “The Hate U Give” does illustrate Tupac’s message that what we are passing along to our children – on a national level, on a community level, on a family level…will most definitely in some way come back to haunt us.
At the same time, audiences are left with another message that is powerful – even if only because it is all black and brown-skinned people have to hold onto in the USA, still, in 2018: that we can only survive the current madness through community, love, pride, recovery…and personal choice.
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Screenplay: Audrey Wells; based on a novel by Angie Thomas
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Algee Smith, Common, Issa Rae
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language
Runtime: 132 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
TWC Film Buff “10-Star” Rating: 9.5