The topics addressed in The Hate U Give – racial profiling, police brutality, social tensions – resonate so much with current events that we cannot but notice how much history repeats itself. Indeed, Angie Thomas started writing this novel in 2009 after the death of Oscar Grant, a black man killed during a police arrest, as was George Floyd on 25th May 2020, more than 10 years later.
Published in 2017, The Hate U Give has quickly become an international best-seller. It is therefore no surprise that a film adaptation was made one year later by George Tillman Jr, choosing the actress Amandla Stenberg for the lead role.
The story features Starr Carter, a 16-year-old African-American girl who grows up straddling two worlds. Indeed, if Starr comes from a poor residential area where life is punctuated by gang wars, she also attends a private high school with privileged and mostly white pupils. The very beginning of the film recalls a classic teen movie between warm colors and teens’ problems, but the plot quickly takes a darker turn as Starr witnesses helplessly the death of her best friend Khalil. The murder scene seems familiar, and with good reason! It is reminiscent of the dozens of similar testimonies that are part of the daily life of urban Black communities in the United States. Again, a white police officer stops the car of a young black driver and kills him, believing himself threatened, whereas Khalil was unarmed and had committed no offense. Starr, the only witness of the murder, therefore sees her two worlds collide as she defends Khalil’s memory against the police who wants to cover up the case.
The author, Angie Thomas, chose to tackle burning issues, highlighting social fractures, the weaknesses of the judicial and penitentiary systems, gangs, the ordinary and institutional racism, racial profiling or even police brutality. In her novel, she depicts the whole of American society and its two-speed operation. However, beyond the depth of the topics addressed, it is the characters who give the story its full meaning. The reader is alternately impressed by the foolproof courage of the heroine, despite her youth and doubts, and moved by the efforts of her parents to protect her, aware of the dangers weighing on young black Americans.
“‘Keep your hands visible’, advised her father. ‘Don’t make any sudden moves.’
One can only be troubled to learn that a black child’s good parenting kit in America involves teaching them the dos and don’ts in the event of confrontation with law enforcement officers.”
Yet, Angie Thomas managed to avoid the pitfalls of an overly Manichean story, by showing the dark side of Starr’s relatives and neighbourhood. Her community, within which solidarity prevails over the rifts and the anger – between moments of mutual aid and violence – thus becomes a character in itself.
The plot and the topics addressed particularly echo the claims of the Black Lives Matter movement, but Angie Thomas was also inspired by the rapper Tupac’s texts, namely for the title of her novel. Indeed, the acronym “THUG LIFE” originally stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”. During the second half of the 20th century, the word “thug” took on a racial meaning, especially naming black people living in urban communities, even without being engaged in criminal behaviours. “THUG LIFE”, despite the negative connotation, is in fact “a term proudly used to describe a person who had nothing at the beginning of their life, but who built themselves a life and became someone” (in the words of Tupac).
If something were to be criticized, about the cinematographic work in particular, it would be the choice of Amandla Stenberg, a light skin African-American, to play Starr, whereas the novel illustrated a young girl with dark skin. Indeed, the actors and actresses with lighter skins are more represented and privileged compared to their colleagues with dark black skins. Amandla is however known for her anti racist activism, and was able to play a touching and credible Starr, contributing thereby to the success of the film.
Altogether, The Hate U Give is a work the viewing of which is essential. It denounces the rise of racial crimes and argues for real justice. This fiction is also a tool for struggle, dedicated to the youth that fights with their fists raised in the air. As Angie Thomas writes it in the acknowledgments of the book: “Your voices matter, your dreams matter, your lives matter. Be the roses that grow out of concrete”.
Translated by Romane Piechota