In Hamlet, Polonius tells his son Laertes, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as day the night, thou canst not be false to any man.” In The Hate U Give, a young African-American girl must struggle not just with being true to herself, but with which of her personae is her true self.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives in two worlds. Her parents, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and Lisa (Regina Hall), have opted to live in Garden Heights, a working-class black neighborhood, even though they could afford to live in a more upscale area. Mav and Lisa are from Garden Heights and want to be part of the community there. In Garden Heights, Starr Version One fits in perfectly. She speaks the slang and wears the right shoes. She knows the people there. They are her people.
But Mav and Lisa want more for Starr and her brothers, Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright), so they send them to a predominantly white prep school across town. At school, Starr Version Two also fits in. She leaves the slang behind. (Her friends use it to sound cool; she would just sound “hood.”) Her best friends at school, including her boyfriend, are all white. Every day she goes back and forth between these worlds, but she is two very different people in each.
When she goes to a party in the Heights one night, a fight breaks out and her childhood friend Khalil helps her escape the violence as they drive off in his car. When Khalil is pulled over by a police officer, the traffic stop escalates into a confrontation that ends up with Khalil being shot and killed. Starr is the only witness. How that role plays out in her two separate worlds forces her to come to grips with who she is and how she must act.
Starr struggles under the weight of her responsibility. Many want her to testify against the officer to bring justice for Khalil’s death. But there are others who want her to stay silent, including King (Anthony Mackie), head of the neighborhood gang (to which Mav once belonged). King does not want anything to come out about Khalil dealing drugs for him. At school, Starr doesn’t want it known that she is the witness because of what her friends might think. She also encounters those there who side with the police officer, assuming nothing was wrong with the killing.
How can Starr be true to herself (and her family, her friendship with Khalil, her community, and the concept of justice) when she has not yet learned who she really is?
Identity is a key concept in this film. Starr and her brothers have names that their parents gave to them for specific reasons that reflect who they are to become. The film also shows how shoes can be a part of one’s identity. What shoes someone wears may speak loudly to those around them. It may seem like a minor bit of life, but within the context of the film, one is what one wears. For Starr, her growing sense of justice and seeking her voice means she must come to terms with all the ways her identity has been fragmented. It is of note that in the voice over we hear of Starr’s testimony to the grand jury, we do not hear about what happened but about who Khalil was to her. To share Khalil’s identity is key for her.
The film opens with Mav and Lisa giving “The Talk” to nine year old Starr and her brothers. They try to explain the injustice they will inevitably encounter. They teach them how to behave when stopped by police in hopes of staying alive. Then Mav gives them the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Plan and demands that they memorize it. “Know your rights. Know your worth”, he tells them. There is something bordering on the sacred in these moments. To be sure, it lays out a very scary reality, but it is also clearly an act of love and nurture.
That tone of near sacredness recurs often throughout the film, often in small ways, such as when Starr looks through her box of childhood memories, and at time in more profound ways, as when Starr addresses the crowd at a protest. It is a reminder of the many times in lives that we encounter the sacred, not because we are looking for the presence of God, but because the divine in always close at hand.
It would be an oversimplification to call this a Black Lives Matter film, although it most certainly fits that description. But it is also a far deeper examination of not only African-American identity, but of the importance of finding oneself in order to know one’s place in the world and how that fulfills what one is meant to do with their life. Starr has been shaped by many competing forces including the systemic racism of society. In this film she begins to come into her own—to find her voice and her future.
Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox