Young Adult novels are the hottest thing in publishing, and not necessarily because teens love to read. Fully grown adults are drawn in as well because the genre at its best can make difficult issues accessible without sacrificing honesty, emotion and truth.
Which is why, its high school setting notwithstanding, the film version of “The Hate U Give” is a moving, emotionally convincing experience.
Adapted from the phenomenon that is Angie Thomas’ first novel, which has spent a whopping 80 weeks and counting on the New York Times best-seller list, “Hate” powerfully details the ways an African American girl’s delicate high school balancing act is disrupted and her persona radicalized when she’s the only witness to the shooting death of a close friend by a white police officer.
Though Thomas was a debuting novelist, the key creative personnel behind “Hate” — director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells — are experienced filmmakers who know how to involve an audience, and they’ve benefited from an exceptional performance by Amandla Stenberg in the leading role.
Wells has carefully pruned the novel, keeping the essence while making some changes. Tillman, whose films include “Soul Food” and “Notorious” and TV credits span from “This Is Us” to “Power,” is not a flashy director but someone who focuses on character and performance.
Though moments of “Hate” feel earnest and conventional, the film compensates by being grounded in the powerful and disturbing reality that launched the Black Lives Matter movement.
That would be the wave of shootings of unarmed black males by white officers that led Thomas (initially moved by the same Oakland incident that was the basis of Ryan Coogler’s debut “Fruitvale Station”) to end her novel with a list of real world victims of violence.
More than that, the film and novel both take their title from the meaning behind Tupac Shakur’s celebrated “Thug Life” tattoo, which the rapper said was an apocalyptic acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F… Everybody.”
But what makes “Hate” such an involving experience is that it is not about slogans but people, about the wrenching ways that ordinary folks trying to live positive, productive lives have their worlds upended by the virulence of racism.
Key to that is the entire cast, but especially Stenberg (a veteran of “The Hunger Games”), who has a killer smile and an unerring instinct for finding and conveying the emotional heart of a situation. What director Tillman has said about his star in interviews — “She has this ability to make you feel like you’re seeing the real deal” — is nothing but the truth.
Sixteen year old Starr Carter (Stenberg) lives in Garden Heights, a poor, mostly black neighborhood in an unnamed, fictional city. Her hard-working parents Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and Lisa (Regina Hall), together since they were 17, have dedicated themselves to making sure their kids have a better life.
In order to make that happen, they’ve sent Starr, half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) to posh Williamson Prep across town. But having to code switch — to act one way in the neighborhood and another at school — is a constant stress in Starr’s life.
While the at-home Starr fears being viewed as acting white, the Williamson version has the opposite dilemma. While using hip-hop slang makes white friends such as Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) appear cool, “slang makes [Starr] ‘hood,’ ” she says in voiceover, adding, “Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.” Even her understanding white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) doesn’t know the whole truth.
“Hate” tellingly begins not with any dramatic incident but with Maverick giving a then-9-year-old Starr and her brother The Talk, telling them how to act in the likely case that they are in a car that’s pulled over by the police.
“It can get real dangerous,” Maverick warns, but — a believer in the Black Panther Party philosophy — he also tells his daughter to “know your rights, know your worth. Don’t you ever forget that being black is an honor, because we come from greatness.”
The plot kicks in when Starr and her friend Kenya (Dominique Fishback, terrific in “Night Comes On”) attend a Garden Heights party.
There, she reconnects with Khalil (“Detroit’s” Algee Smith), a childhood friend she’s lost touch with. It turns out that, having to deal with family economic hardship, the only job Khalil can find is selling drugs for local gang leader King (the always powerful Anthony Mackie).
Before they can even properly catch up, Khalil is pulled over by a local white policeman and, as we and Starr watch with genuine horror, shot and killed for no reason. Though audiences will know this is coming, the awful inevitability of seeing it play out on screen is devastating.
Starr is all but destroyed by what she’s witnessed, worried that her carefully constructed world will collapse. Told by her uncle Carlos (Common), a police detective, that she will have to testify before the grand jury, she worries the kids at school will find out more about her world than she ever wanted them to know.
But, influenced by meeting activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae), who heads a group called Just Us For Justice (a stand-in for Black Lives Matter), Starr finds other thoughts taking hold. She wants to be a better friend to Khalil, wants to testify for him in a metaphorical sense, wants to feel that his death has not been in vain.
This process of finding out who you are and what matters in your life could have been pro forma, but in the hands of Tillman, Stenberg and the rest of the “Hate U Give” team, it does not play that way. More disturbing than you expect, its story of innocence lost and perspective gained holds us and will not let go.
‘The Hate U Give’
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: In general release