Starr Carter lives a dual life. She has ever since her mom got sick of the violence and drugs at their local Garden Heights high school and sent Starr and her brother to a predominantly white school some 45 minutes away.
So now there’s Starr 1, the sneaker-loving girl from the ‘hood who lives by the Black Panther Bill of Rights that her dad taught her years ago. It was the all-important “Talk” he pounded home repeatedly about what to do in dangerous situations, such as when you see a cop. Especially a white one.
And then there’s Starr 2, the serious, academic girl who keeps her head down, walks quietly through the halls of Williamson Prep School and smilingly endures the urban slang her white friends have appropriated to feel cool. In this persona she’ll do whatever it takes to sound as white as possible and not be identified as the “ghetto girl.”
For the most part, Starr is good at balancing those roles. She’s maintained friendships in both communities. She even has a white boyfriend. In fact, Chris is the best thing about being Starr 2.
But then Starr’s worlds collide and implode when she and a childhood friend named Khalil are pulled over after a party one night. Starr instantly follows her dad’s rules and puts her hands up on the car dash where they can be seen. But Khalil, who obviously has never heard the Talk, is much more laid-back about the encounter.
With every step, every move, Starr follows the rules. Khalil does not. And in a blink of an eye, the white cop mistakes a hairbrush for a gun, and Khalil is dead in the street. In a pool of blood. Someone is screaming. Starr eventually realizes … it’s her.
Suddenly, Starr’s two worlds are riddled with cracks and fissures. The authorities are seemingly brushing the white police officer’s crime under the rug—just like every other black shooting in the news.
The white kids at Williamson shake their fists and storm out of school yelling “Black Lives Matter!” But it’s really just a good excuse to cut class for them.
For Starr, though, it’s something completely different. For Starr, it’s her life. She has to choose to do something or do nothing. To tell her story, or keep her safe existence intact. To stand up for what’s right, or blend in.
She has to choose.
The film centers much of its action around deceased rapper Tupac Shakur’s “THUG LIFE” philosophy. It’s an (admittedly profane) acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F–ks Everyone.” Several characters suggest that this way of life encourages those caught up in a system of “violence, drugs and oppression” to stop transferring their hatred to children and learn to break out of that destructive cycle.
That mindset is exactly what Starr’s dad, Mav, tries to exemplify with his family: He purposely chooses to stay in an inner-city community and own a business there while pushing his kids to steer clear of the neighborhood’s violence and to better themselves. “Our life is here, ’cause our people are here,” he states. Later, he declares, “I’m gonna break the cycle for my kids.” (Ultimately, this philosophy is on display when a group of people stand up and help send a drug dealer to jail.)
The issue of racial tension—and how to deal with it—permeates the film. Starr and some of her white friends struggle with racism, though Starr seems most able to recognize it and makes efforts to move past it. She’s also willing to confront others at times regarding these issues. At one point, some white kids prance around spewing crude slang. An angry Starr puts some of them in their place, stating, “You all want to act black, but keep your white privilege.”
Both of Starr’s parents take every opportunity to protect their kids. Mav comforts his emotionally wounded daughter after Khalil’s death. And Mav defiantly, physically places himself between his family and drug dealing thugs as well as two cops with guns drawn. Starr’s mom is willing to do the same, though she more often lobbies to move the kids out of the dangerous community altogether. It’s obvious that the whole Carter family has a close, loving bond.
That bond is also illustrated by Starr’s mom, who chose to forgive Mav after learning that he’d been unfaithful to her. “I had to decide if my love for him was bigger than his mistake,” she discloses to Starr.
Starr and Khalil listen to the Tupac Shakur song “Only God Can Judge Me.” Starr says Khalil is walking around like a “brown Moses.” Starr and Khalil talk of sharing their first kiss in the church basement. And many members of the community show up at that local church to attend a funeral. The pastor repeatedly exclaims “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” during the service. Starr and her family pray before a meal, thanking God for each other. We see a painting of a black Jesus a couple of times in the Carters’ home.
Starr talks about her boyfriend, Chris, “springing a condom on her.” Her friends giggle and ask about its size. Starr and Chris kiss on a couple occasions. Starr kisses Khalil as well.
We see several girls in tops that display cleavage and a woman on television in an extremely low cut and revealing outfit.
We learn that one of Starr’s brothers, Seven, was the result of her dad having sex with another man’s wife.
When Starr’s friend Khalil gets pulled over, the white officer is inexplicably aggressive and demanding. Then Khalil is brutally shot and left to bleed out on the street with no assistance from the officer.
Khalil’s murder eventually leads to civil unrest. Crowds of protestors turn violent as they smash windows on police cars and throw bricks. They burn vehicles and buildings. Police face off with the rioters with Plexiglas shields, police batons and riot guns. They beat some rioters to the ground and send them running and screaming with canisters of tear gas. Starr’s brother is so adversely affected by the corrosive gas that his family has to pour milk into his eyes.
Starr’s brother Seven is beaten badly and left bruised and bloodied. Several gang members threaten Mav; he and another character fight briefly. Then police swoop in and manhandle Mav to the ground until bystanders start filming the incident with their phones. Mav’s small grocery store gets firebombed. Someone shoots a gun during an argument at a party full of teens. Both police and gang members make veiled threats to Starr, suggesting she should keep quiet about what she’s seen.
Starr’s uncle Carlos is a police officer. He tries to explain why tensions might be high when a cop pulls someone over in certain rough-edged areas of town. But even his explanations fall far short of explaining or justifying the kind of police brutality we see here.
Two f-words and two dozen s-words join more 15 uses of “a–” and repeated exclamations of “d–n,” “h—” and “b–ch.” The n-word pops up a few times in the film’s soundtrack. And someone refers to girls as “hos.” “Oh my god” is called out three or four times.
Starr is indirectly related to the local drug-pushing gang leader named King. In fact, her dad used to work for the guy before Mav broke out of that life. Khalil works for King as a drug runner as well. (That said, the movie goes out of its way to justify Khalil as a good guy who had no other choice but to push drugs in order to take care of his ailing grandmother.)
Starr goes to a party where lots of kids are drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages. She takes a sip from a cup before making a face and putting the foul-tasting stuff down. Seven’s biological mom is visibly inebriated in one scene.
Starr’s father tightly clutches a bigoted distrust bordering on hatred for whites, especially white police officers—racial prejudices that the film does not critique. Several neighborhood kids chide Starr about having white friends.
A social justice activist purposely stokes a crowd’s anger and repeatedly encourages people, both white and black, to rise up and scream their protests in the streets and in front of news cameras. Inevitably that heated anger spills over into violence.
The stress of seeing her friend shot in front of her causes Starr to vomit after waking from a nightmare.
An activist declares that police shootings of blacks are all equally unjustified. “It’s impossible to be unarmed,” she proclaims, “When our blackness is the weapon they fear!” The film repeatedly reiterates one protestor’s cry that, “The whole d–n system is corrupt!” Starr gets angry when a friend says, “Cops’ lives matter, too.”
It also must be noted while the THUG LIFE acronym has a positive meaning in its literal sense, that philosophy is also connected to a code of rules about gang violence and drug dealing. Some are positive, many are not. While often praising the positives of Tupac’s THUG LIFE philosophy, The Hate U Give virtually ignores these more unsavory aspects of it.
Message movies come in different shapes and sizes, but they tend to have a common problem: that big ol’ elephant-trumpeting-in-the-middle-of-the-room message thingy. They don’t necessarily care as much about telling a good and compelling story as they do proselytizing viewers to embrace a certain point of view—while making it clear that all other positions are, well, some variation of wrong.
That M.O. fits The Hate U Give to a T.
That’s not to suggest this film isn’t well acted. Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby all communicate their characters’ passions with compelling fervor. It’s clear that a terrible injustice has been perpetrated, and the film’s characters all struggle to respond to it—and to the racially charged conflicts surrounding it.
But even as it attempts to be fair-minded, this film still comes off feeling one-sided in its treatment of controversial issues. Viewers who agree with its perspective may cheer its messages. Those who don’t may very well be offended by them. And for many, the film’s foul language and violence will only add to that discomfort.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.