Arts·Point of View

5 reasons why everyone should be talking about The Hate U Give

The movie U need to see? Amanda Parris shares why there's so much to love about this contemporary tale.

The movie U need to see? Amanda Parris shares why there's so much to love about this contemporary tale

Amandla Stenberg stars in The Hate U Give. (Erika Doss/Twentieth Century Fox)

I read the book, so I should have known better.

Actually, I didn't just read The Hate U Give — I devoured it.

I dropped everything on my schedule, sat in my bed with a comforter around my legs and a tissue box on my pillow and refused to acknowledge the outside world until I'd reached the final page of Angie Thomas's novel.

So I should have known have known better than to see the movie without bringing a single tissue.

But that's what happened. The first time I saw it was at the Toronto International Film Festival. I went alone, sitting between two men in their 60s, and my waterworks began from the opening scene. Believe it or not, that's a first for me, and I continued sniffling (OK, damn near sobbing) until the last.

The second time, I came prepared — bringing a pocket pack of Kleenex and a support group that included my husband and two best friends. It was opening weekend in Canada, and I was scared we'd be scattered among a sold-out crowd. But when we entered the theatre, I was relieved — and disappointed — to find barely anyone there.

Since premiering at TIFF, The Hate U Give has had a gradual rollout, opening in select cities before its wide release Oct. 19. That schedule was engineered to build word-of-mouth buzz, as outlets including IndieWire have reported.

The fact that this film isn't on the tip of everyone's tongue is mind-boggling to me.

The book it's based on spent 85 weeks on the New York Times's best-sellers list for YA fiction, and both critics and movie-goers have loved the film adaptation. It's currently 97 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and it has an A+ audience exit poll on Cinemascore.

But in a month of blockbusters including A Star is Born, Venom and Halloween, The Hate U Give has faced stiff competition at the box office — and so far, its gross has yet to match its $23 million budget.

Numbers aren't the sole measure of a film's success, of course, but despite an awards season release date, it's also being left out of those discussions. Critics have acknowledged the movie's brilliant performances and its deft ability to confront complicated political topics. But in the same breath, they've dismissed the movie as too mainstream — too YA — for consideration.

Without box office or buzz, The Hate U Give is in danger of being forgotten. And because I love this movie so much — and because everyone I know who's seen it feels the same — I have five reasons why everyone should be talking about it.

L-R: Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Amandla Stenberg, and Common in The Hate U Give. (Erika Doss/Twentieth Century Fox)

A story featuring a complicated Black family fiercely loving each other? Yes, please

When people describe the plot, they focus on the ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy at its centre: a young, unarmed Black man is killed by police, and a young girl witnesses the crime.

But that's only one scene of the film. Most of the movie is spent with the Carter family, and you will fall in love with them immediately.

There is the youngest, Sekani (TJ Wright). We meet him when he's peeing on the toilet seat with a mischievous grin. The oldest, Seven (played by Canadian actor Lamar Johnson), balances his life between two homes. And there is Lisa (Regina Hall), the nurse and mother who will always pick her children over the revolution. We also meet Seven's mother and half-sisters, who live with the biggest drug dealer in town, and Lisa's brother, who is a cop living in the suburbs.

It's a complicated family, but one with so much love and a ton of joy. Their reality is shaped by contemporary political realities like mass incarceration (Maverick, the father, served time in prison), but their lives are not defined by those things. 

You'll see some of the best performances of the year

Amandla Stenberg gives everything to her role as Starr, a young girl living the the contemporary version of "double consciousness" — a concept W.E.B. DuBois wrote about decades ago.

Describing the two versions of herself, Starr introduces the audience to her everyday code-switching reality: a life split between her mostly white, privileged private school (Williamson Prep) and her home in Garden Heights, a mostly Black neighbourhood.

Following the murder of her childhood friend, Starr's grief is palpable — as is her rage. We see her gradually lose her grip on the delicate balancing act she thought she had perfected.

Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give. (The Hate U Give)

Stenberg's depiction of both the trauma that comes from witnessing violence and the burden of responsibility when that violence becomes a rallying cry for a social justice movement is the fine line that makes this movie about people first and issues second.

Also, why is no one talking about the performance of a lifetime given by Russell Hornsby?

My mum used to watch the fantasy police procedural Grimm, so I've watched Hornsby for years — but like so many supporting TV roles, he was rarely given a chance to demonstrate the range and depth of his skills in that show.

As Maverick, he plays a reformed gangster turned business owner. Maverick tries to balance his lessons on how to handle police by instilling his children with a sense of dignity using the principles outlined by the Black Panther Ten-Point Platform. That balancing act of vulnerability and strength, common sense and political passion, is the heart of his performance and it is powerful.

It tackles racism as a reality, not a history lesson

Hidden Figures, Selma and 12 Years a Slave are all recent movies about racism that found critical and commercial success (to varying degrees). But what those movies all have in common is that they're based on true stories that happened long in the past. There is distance between those narratives and the people watching today. That distance enables the audience to shake their heads, to sigh deeply, to perhaps drop a tear or two. It may even inspire them to reflect on the continuation of some of those issues today. But rarely does it directly implicate them in the oppression they see depicted on screen.

The Hate U Give is different. Although it is a fictional story that takes place in a fictional community, it is arguably more recognizable and damning than any of those films because it is an unflinching examination into race relations in the United States today. Watching it, you run the risk of hearing language, justifications and arguments you yourself may have used. This can be powerfully affirming. It can also be incredibly uncomfortable. Regardless, it is an experience that forces you to be present and self-aware in a way that doesn't happen when the characters look like pictures in a history book.

Scene from The Hate U Give. (20th Century Fox)

This isn't a movie about police violence — it's about the people who have to live with police violence

Video documentation of police violence against unarmed Black people has been a critical component in building a mass political movement for justice. But the distribution of that footage has also been hugely traumatic.

One of my fears about watching this film was that I would once again have to bear witness to this violence, and it felt like volunteering myself for a form of torture that I have already endured so many times.

But this movie is different. It's not about police brutality. It's about people who recognize the threat of this violence as a reality of their day-to-day existence and how their world becomes fundamentally altered once that violence occurs.

Don't get me wrong, there are a couple of scenes with police violence that are indeed terrible — but in those cases, the focus is not on the victim but on the witness. Starr is who we are on a journey with, and her trauma and pain, her grief and her burden, her politicization and her fear, are all parts of this story that we rarely get to see.

Amandla Stenberg and Algee Smith in The Hate U Give. (Erika Doss/Twentieth Century Fox)

It'll save you from headline fatigue

When the headlines become terrifying, audiences seeks escapism. I'm speaking from experience. (The Handmaid's Tale is great, but I'd rather watch The Good Place right now.)

Maybe that's why audiences are choosing Halloween over an undeniably current depiction of racism in America. And that's the problem with the never-ending news cycle: we're so bombarded with doomsday headlines that we become numb.

Violent incidents that once inspired people to take to the streets are now met with fatigue. But it's harder to maintain that distance when you're confronted with an emotional story. The Hate U Give reflects the humanity behind the headlines. We need to remember what it is to empathize and invest in each other now before we're all permanently paralyzed by cynicism.

Bonus reason: It's just a really good movie

And good movies deserve audiences.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.