The Radical Empathy of THE HATE U GIVE

Within the first few minutes of The Hate U Give, I was crying.

The scene is a familiar one for Black families in America. Two parents sit with their pre-adolescent children at the kitchen table. As the mother jiggles a baby on her lap, her eyes filled with love and concern, the father proceeds, gently but firmly, to explain what the children should do if they’re ever in a car that is pulled over by the police. Put your hands on the dash. If your parent isn’t with you, ask for them, but don’t argue. Keep your hands where they can see them at all times. Know your rights, but don’t count on them to keep you safe.

When you become a parent, your perception of the world shifts. You look at a parking lot, a grocery store, a playground, and suddenly you’re aware of all the ways those seemingly innocuous places can kill your kid. They can get hit by a car, tumble out of a shopping cart, or topple off the top of a slide. They can be abducted by a stranger, or drown in a pool, or choke on a piece of candy.

So we make rules to keep them safe. Hold my hand. Look both ways. Don’t climb too high. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t run by the pool. Take small bites. You know you can’t possibly account for every circumstance — you know that eventually, your kid is going to wander into a scenario that you haven’t explicitly prepared them for — but your fervent hope is that you’ve prepared them well enough that they’ll be able to adapt. That they’ll come through it safely. That they’ll live, so that they can learn.

Amandla Stenberg and Russell Hornsby in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Black parents have to deal with all of the concerns that every other parent deals with, plus one more: they have to prepare their children to survive in a world where Black people are disproportionately at risk of getting fatally shot by police. And they have to do it despite knowing with a cold certainty that racism may render all of their careful preparation moot. That even if their children learn, they still may not live.

An important part of this preparation is “The Talk,” which is the scene that opens The Hate U Give. As it begins, the camera pans down the street of an African American neighborhood on a sunny day. Kids are outside riding bikes, playing basketball, laughing. But then we go into the Carter house, where Maverick (Russell Hornsby), the patriarch of the family, is giving his kids a lesson in how not to be murdered.

As Maverick talks to his children — Starr, 9, and Seven, 10 — his voice is soft, his gaze steady. He’s trying not to scare them, but he also wants them to know this is serious. It’s life or death. The kids get the gravity of the situation; they place their hands palms-down on the table, pretending it’s a dashboard, and don’t speak, keeping their wide eyes on their dad.

Once their instruction is complete, Maverick isn’t finished. He’s gone through the procedures they need to follow, but he knows that there’s something even more important that he must address before his children leave that table, something that has nothing to do with their hand placement or tone of voice. He concludes The Talk by speaking directly to the hearts of his nervous children. “Just because we got to deal with this mess,” he tells them, his lower lip trembling ever so slightly, “don’t you ever forget that being Black is an honor, because you come from greatness.”

(LtR): Russell Horsby, Regina Hall, Amandla Stenberg, and Common in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

That was the point where the tears started to fall for me, and they didn’t let up until after the end credits finished rolling. I’m not Black, and I have no authority to speak to how this film might impact a Black audience, but even though the experience I was watching unfold onscreen was not my own, I don’t recall the last time a movie has hit me quite so hard.

Art has a unique ability to stir empathy in us, both for those who share our experiences and those who don’t. Art created from within our own lanes can make us feel seen and heard, understood and celebrated. And art created from outside our lanes can stretch our hearts and our worldviews in a way that little else can. Fiction in particular asks us to care about people who are not like us — who don’t even exist — by imagining what it must be like to walk in their shoes. It challenges us to consider what it would be like to move through life in a different body, with different skin, with a different value system, with a different past, under different circumstances. Reading books, watching movies, bingeing seasons of television — it all demands empathy, because without empathy, there is no reason to spend time thinking about about what happens to imaginary people in imaginary worlds.

Based on the bestselling novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is decidedly outside my lane, but for me, it succeeded in stirring empathy like few things ever have. I’ve never had to have The Talk with my kids — being Asian-American comes with its own unique set of baggage, but an increased threat of unwarranted force by law enforcement isn’t part of it — but it was clear during its opening scene that Maverick was trying to protect more than his kids’ lives with his Talk. He was working to protect their dignity. Their self-worth. It wasn’t enough for them to simply survive; he wanted them to live. Every parent can relate to that.

Russell Hornsby and TJ Wright in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

This desire of a parent for their children — to safeguard not just their bodies, but their hearts, minds, and souls — runs thick throughout The Hate U Give. The story is not about parents; immediately following The Talk, the movie jumps ahead in time to find Starr as a teenager (Amandla Stenberg), and follows her through the rest of the film, as she reacts to the murder of her childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) at the hands of a white police officer. But by kicking things off with Maverick, it’s easier to keep in perspective that although Starr is indisputably her own person — a strong, opinionated, smart, funny person — she’s also a child.

She is his child. Maverick’s child. Her parents worry for her, and want to protect her, just like any other parents. She is loved, she is valued. She has inherent worth, just like any other child. And as the events of the film unfold, as Starr goes through her unique personal journey of pain and betrayal and strength and self-acceptance, and as Maverick does his best to protect her, it is all filtered through this lens of our universal, shared humanity. Our love of children, and of family, and of community.

Yet, even as The Hate U Give opens by giving its audience an accessible and immediate point of entry with its emphasis on parents and children, it simultaneously zooms in on an issue unique to the Black community. These two truths — that everyone can relate to the emotion of the scene, but that only Black people can relate to the specificity of it — are held in tension throughout the movie, as the narrative continues to shine an unapologetic spotlight on uniquely African-American struggles, while never giving its non-Black audience members the opportunity to wriggle away to a more comfortable distance.

This is what it feels like, the film seems to tell us. Don’t you dare look away.

Algee Smith and Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Being forced to bear witness is a running theme throughout The Hate U Give, both on screen and off. Not only is the main plot of the film literally about the responsibility and impact of a truthful witness, as Starr struggles with whether or not to come forward with what she saw the night Khalil was killed, but there are a number of scenes throughout that drive home the same point, over and over, in a variety of different ways.

When Khalil is shot at the end of the movie’s first act, the camera stays on him and Starr until the bitter end, catching the fear in his eyes as he sputters and gasps for air, catching the terror and helplessness in Starr’s voice as she tries desperately to comfort him during his last horrific moments. It never cuts away or fades to black, forcing us to live through every agonizing second of the end of this boy’s life, making it impossible to view it as anything other than what it is — a tragedy.

This is a child, the film seems to wail as Khalil’s eyes flicker out, and as Starr sobs beside him. These are children. Look what we do to them.

Later, during a scene in which Maverick is wrestled to the ground by police outside a restaurant where his family was peacefully eating dinner, it happens in full view of his wife and children, who stand helplessly to the side, unable to do anything but watch as their patriarch is dehumanized and humiliated right in front of them.

Not in front of my children, his eyes seem to plead with the officers, understanding that for him, it is not a matter of if he is demeaned and brutalized, but when, and he would prefer the when to happen in private, away from the frightened gazes of his family. The officers don’t listen, and his children have no choice but to watch.

Russell Hornsby and Nick J. McNeil in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Watch, the film seems to say, as they weep and tremble on the screen. Watch their innocence get stripped away, layer by layer, piece by piece.

At another point during the film, when Starr’s white boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), earnestly tells her during their prom that he “doesn’t see race,” she pushes back, unwilling to allow him to distance himself from the reality of her world. “If you don’t see my Blackness,” she insists, “you don’t see me.”

And during the film’s climax, when Starr finally finds her courage and her voice to speak out against injustice, among the first words out of her mouth, uttered with conviction and heartbreak, and blasted through a megaphone, are, “I AM THE WITNESS.”

Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

In an interview with Variety, actor Russell Hornsby, who plays Maverick, had this to say about the effect he hoped The Hate U Give would have on audiences (emphasis mine):

“I’ve been often saying that historically, we — when I was in high school, I used to walk around with a t-shirt that said, ‘It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand,’ and I was told, I was corrected to say, no, ‘It’s a Black thing, let me help you understand.’ And I really believe that people are beginning to understand.

Through the universal, you get to the specific. And people are starting to understand what the plight of the Black family has been historically, what we have gone through, but also connecting to the Black family, which connects to everybody and their love of family, and that we are all the same.

The reality of it is that this is not — there’s a difference between revolution and evolution. Revolution is quick change; evolution is change over time. We all know that we would prefer things to be of a revolutionary shift, but that’s not realistic. And so when we have this kind of material and people who have a willingness to listen and willingness to engage, there is now an evolutionary process that has begun. And so that when people listen, they engage, and they have dialogue, and it changes people’s perception.

And I think that’s what’s starting to happen. Because why? People are beginning to feel. And so when you go to this film and you come out of it, you’re a person who has now been touched and is feeling now. And that’s what those tears are. Those tears of pain, those tears of joy, but more importantly, those tears of understanding.”

In the midst of a culture that often seems determined to turn a blind eye to the devastating and pervasive nature of racism, evolution and understanding can seem like lofty, if not impossible goals. When Colin Kaepernick first began taking a knee before his games to protest police violence against racial minorities, it was easier for many to believe that he was protesting the military or the National Anthem itself rather than acknowledge his true intent. Black names as hashtags have become so commonplace that now, most people just numbly scroll by. (As I write this, just yesterday, a new name started trending — Jemel Roberson, a security guard who thwarted a gunman and likely prevented a mass shooting… only to be fatally shot by police as soon as they arrived on the scene. I fear that by the time I hit “publish” in a couple days, another name will have taken his place.)

And when the President of the United States said he wanted to end birthright citizenship — a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which was put in place following the Civil War in response to systemic attempts to disenfranchise ex-slaves, denying them of rights — it was easier for many to believe that it was about security than to acknowledge that to override the 14th Amendment would be to roll back protections put in place specifically to guard against the dehumanization of our fellow human beings, simply because of the color of their skin.

Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

The Hate U Give stands proudly and defiantly against this sort of insistent denial, fighting back with a righteous, burning anger that is surpassed only by its deep empathy. It never flinches away from the humanity of its Black characters in an effort to make what they go through more palatable for non-Black audiences, but demands that we not only watch their struggles, but that we feel them too, internalizing the injustice of it all with a profound sorrow and rage that cuts all the way to the marrow. From beginning to end, The Hate U Give never stops confronting us with the inescapable truth that these are people, just like us, and that their lives matter, just like ours.

And once we acknowledge that their lives matter — and we have to acknowledge it; to do otherwise is to spend the entire movie with our eyes and hearts squeezed tightly shut — then we must also acknowledge the reality of what is happening to them, both on screen and in real life. (The film’s climactic protest scene even goes so far as to recreate an iconic photo taken during the Ferguson protests, driving home the point that while the characters of the film are fictional, the issues they’re facing are very, very real). We must bear witness, and we cannot look away.

Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give (2018). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

A tattoo on Maverick’s arm, visible during the opening scene and repeatedly throughout the movie, reads, Reasons To Live Give Reasons To Die, followed by the names of his three children. Anyone can easily parse its meaning; anything worth giving your life to is also worth giving your life for.

In The Hate U Give, Starr ultimately chooses to speak, despite great personal risk. In acknowledging the humanity of Khalil, in feeling the devastation of his loss, Starr comes to understand that when you truly value the life of another person, you cannot simply stand by if they are being treated unjustly. Plenty of films cultivate empathy, but few do so alongside such a clear and direct call to action. Reasons to live give reasons to die, and reasons to care give reasons to act.

From the very first scene, The Hate U Give is brimming with reasons to care. And like Starr, once we’ve borne our witness, the only question left to answer is, how will we act?

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