Starr Carter speaks two languages — both English.
The main character in “The Hate U Give,” played by Amandla Stenberg, lives in an all-black neighborhood but attends a nearly all-white prep school. Early on, she explains to the audience her “code switching” — how she easily moves from one world to the other by shedding her blackness as much as she can. She swaps her prized sneakers for ballet flats, stuffs her hoodie into her backpack and, most noticeably, starts to sound more “white.” At one point Starr refers to herself as “the unthreatening black girl.”
“This is what sometimes a lot of white individuals want in terms of African-Americans,” says the film’s director, George Tillman Jr. (2009’s “Notorious”). “Not to be authentic, and really code-switch and make it easier for them.”
Starr finds the switching difficult after her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) is shot and killed by a white police officer. She’s suddenly even more different from her white friends (she doesn’t tell them she was in the car with Khalil at the time of the shooting, because doing so would emphasize their different experiences with police). Moreover, she’s thrust into a situation that the country has seen over and over again — the same conversation about how Khalil was “no angel,” how the officer’s life matters too, how the hairbrush Khalil was holding looked like a gun. But “The Hate U Give” speaks in a different voice.
“I think we have a tendency to place less value on female voices, or at least non-male voices,” says Stenberg (“The Hunger Games”). “But it is really important to talk about black women, because I think oftentimes we aren’t assigned emotions outside pain or anger or strength; we are not allowed to have the myriad of emotions that comes with being a human being.”
The film, which opened last week and is based on the book by Angie Thomas, uses Starr to showcase the black women’s voices that typically aren’t included in the larger conversation about race and police violence — and contrast them with the voices that are. Though Khalil was raised by his grandmother because his mother is an addict, the news media interview his mother and present the same portrayal of a black woman — angry, defiant, seemingly uneducated — that is all too common on television.
“In terms of the tropes that are perpetuated about blackness, I think that’s what this film is for,” Stenberg says. “For the way the media intentionally misconstrues or postulates blackness in a way that’s negative, in a way that’s very selective and creates stereotypes.”