When Oscar Grant, an unarmed, black 22-year-old, was fatally shot on New Year’s Day 2009 by a white Oakland transit police officer, calls for justice swept throughout the country. Angie Thomas felt them all the way in Jackson, Miss.
“In my anger and frustration, I wrote a short story about a boy named Khalil who was a lot like Oscar and a girl named Starr who was a lot like me,” she said.
Over the next five years — with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland in similar circumstances — Thomas expanded that short story into what became her debut novel, “The Hate U Give,” which has now been adapted into a film.
They basically called her a ‘hoodrat’ because they didn’t like the way she spoke. But nobody celebrated the fact that she spoke.
“I decided to turn this story into a novel because so many kids in my neighborhood and church, every time somebody called Trayvon Martin a ‘thug,’ it felt like they were calling them thugs,” she said. “I wanted to write a book for them that says, ‘I see you. I hear you. I understand you. I love you.’”
Hitting theaters Oct. 19, the film follows Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a 16-year-old black girl who witnesses the fatal police shooting of her best friend Khalil (Algee Smith, “Detroit”). His death catapults her into the spotlight of the Black Lives Matter movement in her town as she finds herself and her voice.
The picture, directed by George Tillman Jr., also stars Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Issa Rae and Common.
Tillman came across Thomas’ unpublished manuscript while he was on the set of “Luke Cage.” “I read 30 pages and I was hooked,” he said. “The dialogue and language, it felt like us, coming from an authentic place.”
After hearing that others were working to get the manuscript and that Stenberg was circling the lead role, he was on the phone with Thomas by early December courting the rights to make the adaptation. The pair connected on what the film should look like and what from the book had to be maintained in this big-screen version. They wanted to capture the sentiment of what it’s like to live as black people in a country where white supremacy and institutionalized racism marginalizes and oppresses them.
I was hungry and had to get it.
“I was hungry and had to get it,” he said. “It was the kind of movie I’ve been dying to tell: authentic, culturally relevant, one that changes lives and is entertaining.”
Fox 2000, the studio Tillman made “Soul Food,” “Men of Honor” and “Notorious” with, purchased the rights to the film at his request.
“As an author, it does feel like when you give someone your book, it’s like giving your child away,” Thomas said. “But I gave this child to the best man to raise her.”
Tillman ensured that Thomas was involved throughout every stage of production, from Audrey Wells’ script to casting, to on-set performances. And though it’s adapted from a young adult novel — one that has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 77 weeks and counting since its February 2017 release — he never approached it from that perspective.
“What [do] I know about a YA?” he said with a laugh. “What I do know is that today’s movement is a young movement with young people leading the charge. That’s an energy I want to bring to the material. I never approached it as ‘YA’ because the material is very adult.”
While filming, Tillman said the spirits of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, black men killed by police within a day of each other, wafted through the set. As did the energies of the demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., and the unrest in Charlottesville, Va. The hoodie Starr wears in the film is an homage to Martin.
“Sometimes you have those projects where you know you have to go that extra mile and work extra hard because it’s not just for you,” Tillman said. “And for us, we wanted to be authentic to it. That holds a lot of responsibility and I felt it more than anything when we did the shooting [scene].”
And with the story centering on a black girl, Thomas hopes people will remember that though most of the headlines involve black men and boys, black girls shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. Take for example the 15-year-old thrown to the ground in her swimsuit by a McKinney, Texas, officer, and the Columbia, S.C., teen who was forcibly thrown from a desk by a school resource officer. Or Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s friend who was on the phone with him when he was confronted by his killer.
“When this young lady bravely got up and spoke on Trayvon Martin’s behalf, so many people and the media berated her,” Thomas said. “They basically called her a ‘hoodrat’ because they didn’t like the way she spoke. But nobody celebrated the fact that she spoke.
“With Starr, here’s a black girl that knows how to code switch [between black and white communities] and say things that will probably make you more comfortable. But the thing is, are you going to listen?”