SLICE OF STRIFE

Teen’s worlds col­lide in pow­er­ful film that’s an au­then­tic look at life in Amer­ica to­day

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINMENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERoeper

Six­teen-year-old Starr has two “R’s” in her name and two re­al­i­ties in her life.

Re­al­ity One: She lives in Gar­den Heights, an im­pov­er­ished, pre­dom­i­nantly African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood in an un­named but read­ily fa­mil­iar U.S. city.

Re­al­ity Two: Along with her older half­brother Seven (La­mar John­son) and her 10-year-old brother Sekani (TJ Wright), Starr at­tends the posh and priv­i­leged and pre­dom­i­nantly white Wil­liamson Prep. (Her par­ents have made myr­iad sac­ri­fices to make this hap­pen.)

When Starr is at Wil­liamson, she wears the school uni­form and she makes sure not to use any slang, lest she be iden­ti­fied as the “poor girl from the hood.” She grins and bears it when her white friends ap­pro­pri­ate black cul­ture and call her “girl” and dance to hip-hop as if they’ve dis­cov­ered it. Her boyfriend, the earnest but oh-so-preppy Chris (K.J. Apa), looks and sounds like the son of the ro­man­tic hero in “Six­teen Can­dles.”

When Starr is home, she’s not en­tirely com­fort­able there, either. From an early age, she has seen first­hand what drugs and gangs and vi­o­lence and racism can do to a fam­ily mem­ber, to a friend, to those you love the most. When she goes to a party where booze is flow­ing and some of the at­ten­dees are af­fil­i­ated with gangs, it’s al­most as if she’s count­ing the min­utes un­til she can go home.

We get the sense it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore Starr’s worlds col­lide — and when that hap­pens, it will have an enor­mous im­pact on Starr, and on just about ev­ery­one she cares about.

“The Hate U Give” is a pow­er­ful, rel­e­vant, earnest and some­times ab­so­lutely heart­break­ing in­stant time cap­sule — a fic­tional but wholly au­then­tic slice of Amer­i­can life in the 2010s.

Di­rected by Ge­orge Till­man Jr. (“Soul Food,” “No­to­ri­ous”) with a screen­play by Au­drey Wells (who passed away just last week) and based on the mega-sell­ing Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, “The Hate U Give” is in­deed a mes­sage movie, and yes, there are a few times when cer­tain char­ac­ters come close to be­com­ing car­i­ca­tures. But those are mi­nor draw­backs to a story filled with im­me­di­acy and ur­gency but also so much heart and soul.

And love. Fam­ily love.

Nearly ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in “The Hate U Give” cen­ters on or is fil­tered through the view­point of Starr. The movie leans heavily on Amandla Sten­berg’s work as the smart and car­ing and deeply con­flicted Starr, and Ms. Sten­berg comes through with a bril­liant, nat­u­ral and im­mensely ef­fec­tive per­for­mance.

We get equally strong per­for­mances from a num­ber of sup­port­ing play­ers, in­clud­ing Rus­sel Hornsby as Starr’s fa­ther, Mav­er­ick, an ex-con who now owns a neigh­bor­hood gro­cery store and is de­ter­mined to be a pos­i­tive role model for his chil­dren; Regina Hall as Starr’s mother, Lisa, who will do any­thing to pro­tect the fam­ily; Com­mon, as Starr’s Un­cle Car­los, a po­lice of­fi­cer who has to ex­plain cer­tain hard facts of life to Starr, and An­thony Mackie as King, the leader of the gang that con­trols the streets of Gar­den Heights.

After a white of­fi­cer shoots and kills an un­armed black teenager who was close to Starr, and it ap­pears as if the cop might not even be charged with a crime, Starr finds her­self in the mid­dle of an in­creas­ingly tense and ul­ti­mately dan­ger­ous dilemma.

Her white class­mates at Wil­liamson Prep stage a walk­out and wield “Black Lives Mat­ter” signs, but they seem more en­thused about hav­ing an ex­cuse to get out of school than trou­bled by the tragedy. When Starr’s boyfriend says he doesn’t see color when he looks at her, she tells him if he doesn’t see her race, he’s not see­ing her at all.

In the mean­time, an ac­tivist at­tor­ney (Issa Rae) is urg­ing Starr to come for­ward and tes­tify against the of­fi­cer, even as King threat­ens vi­o­lent ret­ri­bu­tion for Starr and her fam­ily if she says too much about what she knows.

Direc­tor Till­man has an ex­cel­lent touch for the qui­etly im­pact­ful scenes with Starr and her fam­ily, as well as the news footage-style de­pic­tions of marches and protests that go side­ways, with tear gas fly­ing in the air and cops pin­ning down protesters — as well as some protesters us­ing the mo­ment as an ex­cuse to set cars on fire and de­stroy lo­cal busi­nesses.

Yet the film never loses sight of the girl who only wants to go to school, spend time with her fam­ily and friends, have a boyfriend, pre­pare for col­lege and just be 16 — but doesn’t have the op­tion and prob­a­bly never had that op­tion from the mo­ment she was born.

ERIKA DOSS/20TH CEN­TURY FOX

Amandla Sten­berg stars as a teen who lives in an im­pov­er­ished neigh­bor­hood while at­tend­ing a posh prep school and is forced into a dan­ger­ous dilemma after her friend is killed in “The Hate U Give.”

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