Algee Smith clearly remembers the day on the set of The Hate U Give when he had to film his character being shot and killed by a police officer.
“I was in my trailer, I had started listening to a lot of Tupac, and I was just flooding myself with that, so that by the time I got to the car everything would just feel natural,” the 23-year-old actor, who plays the ill-fated Khalil Harris, tells EW. “However,” he adds, “I don’t think there’s a way to really prepare to do something that extreme.”
Adapted from Angie Thomas’ 2017 bestselling YA novel by screenwriter Audrey Wells, The Hate U Give may be a fictional story, but what happens to Khalil echoes the tragedies at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement—the real-life deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Decynthia Clements, Alton Sterling, Kendra James, Philando Castile, and other unarmed black men and women killed by police.
“I want people to understand why we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ” Thomas explains. “I want people to look at Tamir Rice and not mourn for his mom and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry she lost her child.’ I want them to mourn for Tamir as if he was their child.”
We first meet Khalil through the eyes of 16-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) as she watches her friend since childhood walking into a house party, flashing his crisp white kicks and a warm, dimpled smile. After gunshots disperse the crowd, Khalil drives Starr home. A white male police officer stops Khalil for failing to use a turn signal and asks him to get out of the car.
As Starr urges Khalil to obey the officer’s instructions, the playfully cocky teen reaches inside his front window to retrieve a hairbrush. A gunshot pierces the moment and Khalil drops to the ground, bleeding heavily as Starr runs to him, sobbing while she cradles him as he dies. In one fell swoop, she loses both her childhood friend and what’s left of her childhood.
Director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) says the scene of Khalil’s death — filmed over the course of 12 hours — was the most emotional part of making the movie, as he and the cast worked to portray the incident with care and honesty. “We wanted to make sure the audience who never experienced that or never experienced racism from African-American culture would be able to understand,” he says.
The Hate U Give is directly inspired by the acronym THUG LIFE, which stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody,” coined by late rapper Tupac Shakur (who had it tattooed across his torso). Thomas says she wants her novel and the film to instill “more empathy” in people and help them not only relate to “the passion and the anger and the frustration” about the system that so often fails African-Americans but also feel “the underlying hope” that it can change for the better.
Khalil’s death is the catalyst for Starr’s journey in using her voice on behalf of her friend, and for all voiceless shooting-death victims. Stenberg, who describes the scene as her most difficult of the film, explains that The Hate U Give shows how such incidents are misconstrued by the media and “villainize the people who are shot and killed by police, in order to negate the issue.”
The film also paints a detailed picture of life in a working-class black community. In the fictional Garden Heights, Starr’s mother Lisa (Regina Hall) is a nurse, her uncle Carlos (Common) is a police officer, and her father Maverick “Big Mav” Carter (Russell Hornsby) owns a local grocery store. Mav spent a few years in prison due to his past involvement with the neighborhood drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie), who enlists young people like Khalil by offering better money-making potential than they might otherwise find among the town’s few job opportunities.
In the film’s opening scene, Mav teaches a young Starr and her two brothers that there will be a time when they have a confrontation with the police, and he gives them a step-by-step guide on how they should behave without sacrificing their dignity. “Being black is an honor because you come from greatness,” Mav tells them.
Hornsby says he and Hall based their parental figures on the men and women “we were raised by that we could fully identify with,” with Hall adding that their performances were “honoring the people” who impacted their lives.
“I think Angie captured authentic life, and specifically authentic black life,” she says. “The characters were just so real and palpable.”
Starr’s reality is caught between two worlds: one at home with her close-knit family in their black neighborhood, and the other at her predominantly white, affluent private school, where as “Starr Version 2” she dates goofy Chris (Riverdale’s KJ Apa) and is best friends with the blond, wealthy Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). The film reveals the nuances of how Starr navigates those two worlds, and depicts her conflict—especially after Khalil’s death—in keeping them separate, as she contends with the cost of coming forward as a witness to the shooting and becoming an activist.
For Stenberg, the juxtaposition of Starr’s dual identities underlines the injustices in black and brown communities today. Starr doesn’t reveal to her boyfriend or school friends that she knew Khalil, let alone that she was present when he was shot; as his death becomes national news and sparks outrage, the kids in her school decide to protest his death and demand justice, but without demonstrating any mature understanding of the life that he lived. It is in this moment that Starr’s anger rises to the surface.
“You get an understanding of what it must be like to walk in these people’s shoes, what it must be like to be a part of the black community and be consistently institutionalized and consistently invalidated and have your words be twisted,” Stenberg says.
As Starr grapples with what she’s witnessed, April Ofrah (Issa Rae), a legal adviser and activist, urges the teen to embrace her position and speak up for her community—a move Starr’s parents are divided on.
“I think about a lot of my activist friends and how exhausting it is for them to constantly rally around issues,” Rae says. “There’s so much power in our voices alone and amplifying them, but it comes at a cost.” Her character “reminds Starr that her voice is powerful, her voice is a tool, and she has a responsibility to bring justice to his death.”
The Hate U Give arrives on the heels of numerous movies this year by filmmakers of color that have explored violence and tension for black people and black communities. In Marvel’s Black Panther, writer-director Ryan Coogler imbued the antihero Erik Killmonger with the anger and frustration felt by many African- Americans; Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman told the real-life story of Colorado Springs’ first black police officer, Ron Stallworth, who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan; Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You explored economic oppression within an allegorical world; Blindspotting, co-written and starring Daveed Diggs, delved into the trauma inflicted on an Oakland man after he witnesses an unarmed black man shot by a white police officer.
While The Hate U Give is centered on the African-American community, its resonance reaches beyond. Starr’s internal struggle echoes that of many second-generation children who juggle dueling cultures. In her novel, Thomas uses a touchstone of so many childhoods — Harry Potter fandom — to signal that Starr and Khalil are just like every other Potterhead around the world. Tillman captures that in a devastating scene where Starr goes to Khalil’s house after his death and brings back a keepsake, his makeshift wizard wand, a reminder of how she and her friend used to play.
Keeping with the coming-of-age themes, Thomas says The Hate U Give shows teenagers dealing with “very adult things.” Stenberg’s performance has earned early praise from critics, and that — combined with the story’s timeliness — might get the film into awards contention, especially if it can reach audiences outside the novel’s core of young-adult readers.
Stenberg says she grew personally during filming, as she “had to find the strength” within herself to play Starr authentically. In doing so, she was inspired by her character’s discovery of the power of her voice. In the past year the 19-year-old actress (who broke out as Rue in The Hunger Games) has come out as a lesbian, and she continues to use her growing platform as a political and social activist on issues such as female and LGBTQ empowerment and Black Lives Matter.
“I was learning about how to speak up for yourself and how to not let anyone make you be quiet, which is a phrase that is really important in the story,” says Stenberg. “I was learning how to stop holding my tongue, because Starr’s not afraid to.”