PLOT An African-American girl at a mostly white prep school questions her loyalties after witnessing a police shooting.
CAST Amandla Stenberg, Russell Hornsby, KJ Apa
RATED PG-13 (some strong language)
PLAYING AT Theaters in New York City. Opens Oct. 19 on Long Island.
BOTTOM LINE A teen-movie milestone that tackles the uncomfortable issue of racism in an engaging and relatable way.
A black high schooler witnesses a friend’s death at the hands of a white cop in “The Hate U Give,” George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’ young-adult novel. On its surface it’s a conventional teen film, with good-looking young stars and a hot soundtrack featuring Kendrick Lamar, Logic and Pusha T. It also tells a confrontational and deeply discomfiting story about the life-or-death issue of racism in America.
Initially, “The Hate U Give” seems almost breezy in tone. Its heroine is Starr Carter, a thoughtful teenager (a winning Amandla Stenberg), who juggles two identities -- the black girl from lower-income Garden Heights, and the well-adjusted student at a mostly white prep school, Williamson. No wonder Starr loves Will Smith in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — but that old television comedy took place in a fantasy world, where loosey-goosey black kids showed uptight whites how to have fun. Starr lives in the real world. At Williamson, she never offends or even asserts, lest she become known as the “angry black girl.”
Where there are teenagers, there is drama: Starr is dating a white kid, Chris (KJ Apa), but hasn’t told her dad, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), who lives by the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program of self-defense and empowerment. Complicating matters, Starr’s childhood crush, Khalil (Algee Smith), gives her a lift home one night and steals a kiss. That moment of high-school soap-opera turns into horror when the pair are pulled over by an aggressive white cop.
In the coming days, as Khalil’s death makes headlines and Starr is pursued by lawyers, television hosts and black activists (Issa Rae plays April Ofrah), the carefully balanced seesaw of Starr’s identity begins to tilt. Chris, despite his post-racial pleas (“I don’t see color!”), begins to represent betrayal; white friends like Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) reveal unplumbed depths of prejudice; and even Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), a policeman, expresses empathy for his colleague.
Through it all, it’s Maverick who remains Starr’s moral compass. With his inner certainty and loving eyes, Maverick feels almost like a new kind of Atticus Finch (a role Hornsby played Off-Broadway). When he gives his young children “the talk” — how to avoid getting shot when pulled over by a cop — Maverick becomes a contender for the best movie-dad of the new millennium.
“The Hate U Give,” written by Audrey Wells and titled after a Tupac Shakur aphorism, has its corny moments. Still, it’s the rare teen drama that deals with issues of race and justice head-on.