Shiane D. Jacocks
“Now when it happens, don’t act mad. You gotta look calm. Answer their questions, but don’t tell ‘em nothin’ extra. Keep your hands out your pockets. You drop something leave that shit where it’s at.”
This is the first line of the film The Hate U Give directed by George Tillman Jr and based on a novel of the same name by Angie Thomas. The title wasinspired by the rapper Tupac based on his own activism reflected in his music.
In this first scene, the father, Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby) is talking to his three children, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), Seven (Lamar Johnson), and Sekani (TJ Wright) about what to do when they are pulled over by the cops. This scene is not only setting the audience up for what is to come, but it is also showing a parent giving his children tools for survival and teaching them about the racial and systemic structures that often trap Black folks in a vicious cycle of crime and violence.
This conversation is not uncommon. More and more parents today are having “the talk” with their children—the kind of discussion often reserved for talking about sex—is now about how the justice system is supposed to protect citizens but ultimately it isn’t going to, especially in relation to Black people.
The film definitely plays into this conversation not only regarding police brutality, but also around the term “double-consciousness,” coined by W.E.B Du Bois, where the protagonist, Starr, is torn between two worlds and two identities.
Starr attends an upper-class high school instead of the one in her neighborhood, Garden Heights—a mostly poor Black neighborhood.
Surrounded by predominantly white students, Starr has to conceal her Blackness. In a voice over, portraying her inner thoughts, she says, “Slang makes them cool. Slang makes me “hood.” This film demonstrates how Black people are often under a microscope, especially Black women, for fear of appearing “too aggressive” or “too ghetto.”
The movie also doesn’t linger on the pivotal moment that audiences know is coming. After a party, Starr’s friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) is taking her home, when they are pulled over by the cops. The tension builds, and the signs are all there. The sirens sound. The red and blue lights flash. Khalil has his music on. Starr puts her hands on the dashboard. The cop, who is white, walks over to the car, with his hand already on his gun as he taps on the window.
What’s heartbreaking and infuriating about the murder of Khalil is that audiences have seen it before. “But here we are again. Violence, brutality. It’s the same story, just a different name. Today’s name is Khalil Harris,” the powerful words of April Ofrah’s (played by Issa Rae from HBO’s Insecure) fill the room of the church during Khalil’s funeral.
We see this often. Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. These stories that turn into news pieces but lose the humanity of the people behind the story and you hardly hear what happens afterward.
Starr is the only witness to the shooting of Khalil and the trauma and anxiety that she goes through, shows the reality of the situation. She must not only deal with SATs, prom, and other normal teenage problems, but also the way that society treats Black bodies.
Tillman addresses the conversation of those who ask, why didn’t Khalil just do what Starr did? Why did he even argue with the police officer in the first place? Tillman asks us directly, why are Black people told to be extra cautious around the police? Is it for their safety or for the one who did the shooting?
America tells Black folks, you are not allowed to drive while being Black, you are not allowed to barbeque while being Black, allowed to sleep while being Black, allowed to sell candy while being Black. You are not allowed to be, especially when it comes to disobeying authority.
In The Hate U Give, it is a hairbrush that the police officer mistakes as a gun, as if that is the only thing that made him shoot. As Sara Ahmed, feminist writer, scholar, and activist said in her book Living a Feminist Life, “[One] has to work not to appear as aggressive because [one is] assumed aggressive before [they] appear.”
One of the strongest scenes in the movie is when Starr is asked by April if she is ready to use her weapon and she is given a T-shirt with tribute to Khalil and a microphone. Starr picks it up, the world behind her fades, as she holds it in her hands. She thinks, “it’s as heavy as a gun. If 115 [the police officer] had traded his weapon for this one, maybe Khalil would still be alive.” This shows the audience, particularly children, the impact of racism, the dynamics of power, and what it means to be radical and use your power to make change.
In a world where Black and other marginalized bodies are murdered, unaccommodated, and silenced, this film gives us a story where, even though the perpetrator may not be held accountable, it tells us that there is still a community to depend on. It tells us that anger is valid, especially when it comes to violence and oppression. And it tells us that our strongest weapon, can be our voice.
Shiane D. Jacocks is the assistant prose editor for Puerto del Sol and a current MFA student at New Mexico State University, studying fiction. She is particularly interested in Afrofuturism, speculative work, and activism. She has been published in The Pacific Review, The FEM, IE Voice, Black Voice News, and Ventanas. She is currently working on a thesis with short stories. You can follow her on Twitter @shianejacocks.