Friday, June 14, 2019

Facing Life (and Death) in the ‘Hood: The Hate U Give

High school, the movies tell us, is Hell. High school is a place where boys, pushed in unfamiliar directions by puberty, vie to prove their machismo.  Being labeled a geek, a jock, or a brainiac hardly makes life easy. And girls face their own special challenges. Puberty strongly affects them too, as does the feeling of needing to fit into a social clique. Recent flicks like Lady Bird and this year’s Booksmart explore the mixed-up psyches of high school girls. Looking back a bit, we could call this a genre, and include on the list such high-school-set movies as Heathers (1998), Mean Girls (2004), and Easy A (2010), all of them focusing on smart young women trying to figure out their place in the world.

The girls in these movies face boy problems, best-friend problems, too-smart-for-her-own-good problems. But Starr Carter, the girl at the center of The Hate U Give, has problems of a much more life-and-death kind. At age 16, she’s just seen a close childhood friend needlessly gunned down by a cop at a traffic stop. And six years earlier, when she was only ten, another best friend died in a drive-by shooting. Such is life, we’re told, when your skin is black and you live in what most people call the ghetto.

Starr’s parents, Big Mav and Lisa, highly value their ethnic roots. They’ve chosen to make their home where they grew up, in Garden Heights, a place they consider (despite the gangs and the drug dealers) a genuine community. Still, out of concern for their children’s welfare,  they’re now bypassing the local public school to send the kids to Williamson, a posh suburban academy. That’s where Starr learns the fine art of code-switching, shifting her home-grown speech patterns so that her classmates are never reminded of her inner-city origins. As she explains in the voiceover that continues throughout the film, the white kids love using black phrases and intonations, because “slang makes them cool. Slang makes me ‘hood.” That’s why the uniform-wearing preppie she calls Starr Version 2.0  is not comfortable sharing with her school friends the trauma she’s just experienced, even though news of Khalil’s death has rocked the city and she herself has been asked to testify in front of a grand jury probing the police officer’s conduct. .

The Hate U Give (the title comes from a Tupac Shakur lyric) is based on a Young Adult novel that’s been an international best-seller since 2017. The novel, by Angie Thomas, presents a wide social panorama that includes ghetto thugs, yuppie suburbanites, good-hearted elders, and a black cop who serves as the Carter family’s alternate father-figure. Family dynamics are complicated. Starr’s dad -- of whom she lovingly says, “You set an example of what a man should be” -- has a prison record and is raising a child he fathered with a woman who’s now in thrall to the local gang lord. Perhaps because of the novel’s huge success, the filmmakers have stayed largely faithful to the source material, to the point that a casual viewer will surely be confused by the intricacy of the relationships on display.

A few big changes have been made, though. That Grand Jury scene is shot impressionistically, for greater impact, with the dead boy appearing as a ghostly presence in the jury box. Starr’s parents, in the film version, never abandon Garden Heights, despite the retaliation they face from gang-affiliated hoodlums. And a key moment featuring Starr’s younger brother vividly drives home Tupac’s point: "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody." It’s a thought worth considering.

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