‘THUG LIFE’: Rapper and Activist Tupac Shakur said the acronym stands for The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. “That’s the hate they are giving us… a system designed against us. That’s thug life” – Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas’ Young Adult bestseller, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, has been adapted into an equally hard-hitting film. Through the complex characters, the film fully embraces neglected grey areas, avoiding ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to escape the binaries society clings to.
The Hate U Give follows teenager Starr Carter, who splits her identity between two worlds: her poor and predominantly black neighbourhood and her posh, suburban, white high school. Her carefully balanced world is shattered when she is witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Kahlil, by a police officer. After the tragedy, she can no longer ignore the microaggressions present in her daily life, and takes the brave decision to use her voice to confront the reality of racial injustice in America.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois explains “double consciousness” as the struggle of acquiring a “second sight”, that only lets one see themselves “through the revelation of the other world”. This is a white world, where ones ‘blackness’ is seen as a problem. It is this awareness that dictates the life of Starr, played by The Hunger Games’ Amandla Stenberg. At her high school, Williamson, she code-switches to Starr “version 2” because “Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto”. Although I feel light-skinned mixed race Amandla was completely convincing as Starr, it would have been a great opportunity to platform a dark skinned actress. Author Angie Thomas defended the casting decision, saying she had envisioned Amandla as Starr even in creating the character. But, it does beg the question, how black is too black for diversity in Hollywood?
The intent of the film is portrayed in the seriousness of the opening scene, when Starr’s father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), gives ‘the talk’ to his three young children. As is normal to most African-American parents, Mav instructs his children on how to behave if they are pulled over by the police. As they had never rehearsed this scene, the reactions from the young actors were genuine, showing the uncomfortable reality that black people are inevitably treated differently, while foreshadowing Khalil’s tragedy. It echoes one of the most powerful lines of the film: “it is impossible to be unarmed when it’s our blackness they fear.”
The most important thing this film does is disrupting what author and activist Chimamanda Adiche refers to as “the single story”, through its use of counter storytelling. All too often there is the recurring portrayal of black stereotypes: the absent black father, the young black criminal, the angry black woman. Yet Thomas writes blackness as a multifaceted identity, through the range of characters in the community and the nuanced identity of the individual. Significantly, this isn’t just shown through the main protagonist Starr, but the complex secondary characters around her.
This is exemplified with Starr’s Uncle, a secondary father figure and detective on the police force. His split loyalties lead him to fall into the mindset of trying to rationalise the officer’s decision to shoot. In Starr’s confusion she asks how her Uncle would have acted and his answer is truthful in its complexity. Even Carlos, a black man, is influenced by the ‘single story’ narrative of black men. He cannot confirm he wouldn’t have shot Khalil too. It is this honesty in acknowledging which is so commendable.
The single story is particularly toxic when representing young black men in the media. Outside of Garden Heights, Khalil is just a young black thug, nothing more than a drug dealer. As Adiche states, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” His identity is reduced entirely to this one part of him – Starr’s white friend Hailey refers to him as ‘the drug-dealer’, as if this belittles the crime of his murder. But dealing drugs does not mean you deserve to be shot! The roles of victim and perpetrator are disturbingly inverted.
Starr notices this when she is interviewed by the police, they ask more about Khalil’s character than what the officer did. She is enraged she can’t tell the real story and says “I didn’t know a dead person could be a charged with his own murder.” It is not just the media, but also the justice system that appears to cling to the single story of young black men as criminals. There is a beautiful moment in the Courthouse where screenplay writer, Audrey Wells, pieces Khalil’s identity back together as a whole. When Starr is asked to say exactly what happened that night, she replies “I will tell you the facts”, and then proceeds to paint a full picture of her friend, the important facts being his true character.
The film really acts as both a mirror and a window. It gives BAME people something to relate to, characters which allow them to think on their own experiences. Just as importantly, I strongly believe the film has the capacity to open the eyes of white people to the experience of others, and their own white privilege. As mixed race, but also completely white-passing, the film for me was powerful as a combination of mirror and window. I found the scene in which Maverick is unnecessarily degraded by two police officers particularly distressing. I realised this was because Maverick’s strength and protective nature reminded me of my own Dad, and it was too easy to imagine how I would have felt seeing him in Mavericks position.
The Hate U Give provides much needed in-depth exposure to the problem of systematic racism and stereotyping, and is a great tool for conversation across racial and ethnic groups. Its biggest triumph is the rich and complex characters, which are so human you cannot help but to empathise with them. The story is completely necessary; it is a hard watch, but it should be. Yes, it is fictional, but it might as well be recounting real events. As the film says it’s the “same story, different name”. I hope through understanding and raising our voices we can change that story.
The Hate U Give is showing at Campus Cinema on Tuesday 11 December – 6.30 & 9pm
– Libby Gervais