I mostly talk books and writing on this site, but if you’ve followed the site, you know that I’m just a lover of the arts, period, and have opinions on things (not just art). I’ve talked movies here before – Roxanne Roxanne and Annihilation, Room and other movies, Suffragette, Queen of Katwe, Bazodee, Creed, Birdman and Foxcatcher, Spotlight, and others. So, let’s talk, The Hate U Give – for my review of the book, click this link; now on to my review of the film.
The Hate U Give continues the grand tradition of the book – however imperfect – being better than the movie. Yes, there are exceptions but the generalization exists for a reason. It’s inevitable perhaps that something of the nuance of a story stands to be lost in the translation from page to film.
In the Hate U Give, for instance, it made me sad to see Seven, brother of main character and narrator Starr, relegated to little more than scenery even with his story being amalgamated into that of another boy who was erased altogether. In the book, Starr and Seven’s relationship and Seven’s own arc added richness and complexity to the tale. He was as caught between two worlds as she was, three if you think about it – because he went to the same private school she did so moved between black and white spaces, but also within the black spaces he occupied he had his own tug-o-war between his father’s family (the father he shared with Starr) and the distinctly different world of his mother. That scene in the book where his mother shows up at his birthday party was for me one of the book’s emotional high/low points – the closest we get is a dimmed version of his mother and her violent drug kingpin boyfriend showing up at the funeral of Khalil, the boy whose death by police is the story’s inciting incident. In losing so much of Seven, we lose certain dynamics of Starr’s tale – her insider-outsiderness in her own/home world, and the ways she struggles to define family. The tension between her and her brother’s other sister and her friend over their ‘ownership’ of him, not literally but as family, is not an insignificant plot point. However, it is completely gone from the film and in addition to Seven being background, the sister is reduced to a cliché. A huge part of the story’s heart and texture (re the interpersonal relationships) is, therefore, lost to the streamlining of Starr’s story along black and white lines.
As filmed, the only real struggle in Starr’s life is between her pure white private school world and the friendships and romances therein, and the all black world she lives in (the richness of which we don’t really see in the film as we do in the book). The layers have been ironed out for ease of visual storytelling. Speaking of visual storytelling, it’s hard to miss the hopefully unconscious colourism in the casting. Not blaming the cast for this. I’m actually rooting for Amandla Stenberg – have been since Hunger Games – and feel this is the best performance I’ve seen from her to date. But it doesn’t slip notice that the character on the cover of the book is dark-skinned and Amandla is decidedly not, and that the darker skinned Black people in the film are tied to the ghetto life (Seven as a possible exception, though, as noted, he’s in both worlds). It’s a thing white audiences may not notice but which I’ve seen some around the black interwebs comment on.
Speaking of whose gaze, the film is very mindful of courting a crossover audience, while the book was uncompromisingly written from the Black perspective – in an honest way, that cued any person with an open mind and heart to respond to it. So that, for instance, the shooting of Starr’s friend Khalil on the screen is ambiguous in a way it is not in the book – in the book, it’s clear that cop bias – implicit if not explicit – was involved; in the movie, the cop is given a sympathetic out. As a result the commentary on the overzealous cop protected by systemic and latent racism is diluted. We also see this dilution in her relationship with her private school friends, one of whom was a clear mean girl with deliberately tone deaf and racist tendencies in the book; and in the movie is just kind of clueless. The movie bends over backwards to make the antagonists not so bad – some might call it nuance, some might call it white washing.
In trying to serve all masters, pleasing none, some of The Hate U Give’s gravitas – such as it had – is lost, and other moments, the riot scene didn’t have any real sense of danger (to me, I’ve seen that there is disagreement on this point), not like in the book. Though that moment after the fire (the fire King went down for though he didn’t technically set it) did have me worried for Starr’s little brother, so it’s not like I wasn’t emotionally engaged.
One of the characters who was problematic for me in the book is even more so in the movie, a fault of both writing and casting. Disclaimer: I love love love Issa Rae. Loved Awkward Black Girl, respect what she’s doing with Insecure, but the lawyer/activist she plays already read like a stock character, and she doesn’t personalize her in any way. I’m seeing Issa, not the character – but as noted it was a thinly written character to begin with (and, full disclosure, I’m hesitant to dog Issa in any way).
All of that said, the film is not the worst thing ever – a recent google turned up 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and 82 on Metacritic (so clearly I and some of the earlier criticism I saw are the minority view). For me, it’s just okay…which already makes it, as a teen/young adult genre film, miles ahead of Twilight.
-by Joanne C. Hillhouse. If you haven’t checked any of my books as yet, I hope you do. If you have read my books, please consider posting a review to Amazon or Goodreads if you haven’t already done so. Thanks! Also, as needed, be sure to check out my writing and editing services.