Like hurricane winds, the vortex of psychological forces buffeting the calm-eyed 16-year-old at the center of “The Hate U Give,” played by a remarkable Amandla Stenberg, at times seems violent enough to tear apart a grown man. Having witnessed the shooting death of her childhood best friend (Algee Smith of “Detroit”) — during the kind of routine traffic stop gone wrong that has become distressingly familiar from viral videos — Starr is pushed and pulled in multiple directions over the course of this powerful, timely and deeply moving tale.
The residents of Garden Heights, the predominantly black urban community where Starr lives, want her to go before a grand jury, seeking an indictment of the white cop who killed yet another unarmed black teenager. Meanwhile, the neighborhood drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), would prefer that she keep her mouth shut, since the dead young man worked for him. King is not above using threats — and, ultimately, violence — to intimidate. Starr’s mother (Regina Hall), for her part, wants to move the family to a safer neighborhood; her father (Russell Hornsby), a reformed drug dealer who runs a small grocery store, is resigned to staying, in defiance of King.
As for the rich white kids at the private school that Starr and her brothers attend, a world away from Garden Heights, they’re more than happy to cut class to protest the shooting, but privilege blinds some of them to their own implicit biases.
The gale is represented by hot air from many sides. On the one hand, there’s the lawyer (Issa Rae) from the Black Lives Matter-style group that wants Starr to testify. On the other, there’s Starr’s uncle (Common), a police officer who explains to his niece in one scene just how and why a cop might come to the conclusion that shooting an unarmed suspect is justified. It’s counterintuitive — not to mention tellingly evenhanded, if nauseating — that the screenplay by Audrey Wells puts this defense of police brutality in the mouth of a black man. Impeccably directed by George Tillman Jr. and based on the acclaimed young adult bestseller by Angie Thomas, “Hate” defies expectations at every turn. (The title is taken from a blunt acronym for the term “thug life” used by the late rapper Tupac Shakur: The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everybody.)
Sure, the story deals, tangentially, with high school dating and young love — complexities made more fraught by the fact that Starr’s boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), is white. And there’s room, alongside the heavy subject matter, for moments of sweetness and humor. When Starr brings Chris home to meet her father, a man who made his kids memorize the Black Panther Party’s 10-point platform when they were still in elementary school, there’s a funny scene in which Starr and her brother (Lamar Johnson) grill Chris about black food culture.
But its dead seriousness lends this engrossing film urgency.
There are so many unfortunate echoes: to the rage that exploded in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting of Michael Brown; to the gated community in Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon Martin was killed while walking back from a convenience store; and to any number of other cities where confrontations between unarmed black youths and white men with guns have turned deadly. Like the infamous “talk” that opens the film — the conversation that many black parents feel forced to have with their children about how to behave when they are stopped by the police — it is a movie that feels both essential and terribly, terribly sad.
If the movie ends on a hopeful note — and it does, delivered in a starmaking speech by the film’s young heroine, who finally finds her voice despite a maelstrom of competing words — it is one that lingers in the air with the somberness of a gospel choir at the funeral of a child.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements, some violence, drug material and strong language. 132 minutes.