In an era where police shootings involving unarmed black men are plastered all over our television screens, director George Tillman Jr. seizes on the opportunity to provide a teenager’s perspective in “The Hate U Give.”  One half of the film is a harrowing, deeply moving examination on how a community interprets the death of one of their own, and the isolation in which they can feel it.  The other half is an overly dramatic, and overlong study that seems unable to contain all the various messages its trying to convey, summing up to an uneven venture.

The Hate U Give,” tells the story of Starr (played by Amandla Stenberg), who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil (played by Algee Smith) at the hands of a police officer.  Facing pressures from all sides of the community, Starr must find her own voice and stand up for her friend, and what’s right.

The script by Audrey Wells, who adapts from the novel by Angie Thomas, does a fascinating examination of a young black girl who travels from a crime-filled neighborhood to an affluent private school, where she’s one of the only black girls in the school.  Starr narrates her personal experience about how the world sees her.  She speaks to being an educated young girl and being interpreted differently by the two worlds she inhabits.  As the reviewer, this spoke close to the chest, as a multiracial person who grew up in the Bronx and Jersey City, two urban areas of the Northeast.

Growing up near Boston Rd. in the Bronx, I lived in a neighborhood where I was the only Hispanic kid on the block.  For many, they didn’t see me as a fellow minority.  I had light skin and wasn’t “black enough” for the black people.  Then, when I was eight years old, my mother moved our family to Jersey City, a much safer and diverse neighborhood.  I went to a public school for the first time, surrounded by Latinos of different ethnicities.  Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, all of which were bilingual, which I was not.  My mother worked a lot growing up, trying to support four children as a single mother.  Traditional Spanish dishes were present but not foundational as many of my peers were exposed.  Since I didn’t speak Spanish, I wasn’t “Spanish enough” for the Spanish people.  Starr seems to be pulled between two worlds, both feeling like she should stake a claim and be loyal to a cause.  The first 50% of the film effectively portrays this.  Even astounding at times, all leading up to the murder of Khalil, which is far more emotional than you may assume.

Then we get into the aftermath.  The story that follows where the script brings in a drug lord (played by Anthony Mackie) and has Starr contemplating her involvement with the protests with a backdrop of a racist best friend that seems more of a caricature than an actual figure. Tillman’s cinematic choices of needless slow mo’s and “too close” close-ups, end up distracting rather than emotionally driving.

Amanda Stenberg, who has starred in two other features this year (“The Darkest Minds” and “Where Hands Touch”), puts forth the best performance of her young career yet.  She finds the joy and naivete in Starr, manages to rip through scenes, even when some of the beats and dialogue hold her down, and effectively holds the picture together.  It will be exciting to see where her career goes from here.  Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall as Starr’s parents are equally affecting and ferociously daring.  Lamar Johnson as Starr’s brother Seven is memorable while Common and Issa Rae seems to come and go in just “come and go” roles.

The Hate U Give” is something that many will find deeply impassioned.  It speaks to members of these communities in which these atrocities take place.  High school students can take much from the film.  In many regards, it becomes a PSA about how children of color should behave when approached by a police officer, what we can do as members of humanity to make our communities better, and how we can begin a dialogue to move forward.  Far from perfect, the film is worth the time, and something we can learn from.

“The Hate U Give” opens in theaters on Oct. 19 and is distributed by 20th Century Fox.

GRADE: (★½)

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