Starr Carter, the central character in the recently released movie “The Hate U Give,” spends her school days surrounded by white guys and girls in preppy uniforms. It’s an elite private school nowhere near her family’s home in Garden Heights, the ‘hood.
When a police officer shoots and kills a young black man, her classmates welcome the opportunity to take part in a demonstration to protest the loss of just another life that apparently didn’t matter as a chance to play hooky.
This death really mattered to Starr: She was in the passenger seat, hands on the dashboard as instructed to do during The Talk, when Khalil was killed outside the driver-side door. She is fretting over the prospect of going public with what she knows about the way her childhood friend died.
Starr’s dilemma is somewhat personal for Angie Thomas, the author of the award-winning novel that is the basis for the screenplay. Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, attended an overwhelmingly white, religious affiliated college there, and pondered what would happen if something like what takes place in the movie took place in her hometown.
The movie wasn’t shot in Jackson, but nearly 400 miles away, in Atlanta. The backdrop for many of the scenes was Benjamin E. Mays High School—an academically challenged public campus whose student body is nearly all black. Those at the school more likely to be in uniforms these days might be in the marching band or on the football team.
But what in some ways could come across as cinematic sleight-of-hand could also be taken as made to order. Thomas and Director George Tillman Jr. say they wanted the film to have real meaning wherever storylines like that in the movie occur—Any Black Community, USA.
“I made this movie with African Americans in mind, but I believe when you’re authentic to yourself and authentic to your culture, it makes the message universal for everybody,” Tillman said to an audience at a screening in Washington, DC.
Thomas wanted her book and the movie to be a guide for today’s youngsters when they become responsible adults tomorrow, and face eventful decisions on matters like those played out on screen.
“I hope that when they do become that politician or they do become that leader, even if they become a cop, if they’re ever in a situation, I want them to think about Khalil and how they felt about his death before they make a real-life decision,” she told BuzzFeed News in an interview last year as the movie was being filmed.
The storyline of “The Hate U Give” is rooted in Oakland, California, and in another movie. Fruitvale Station, a 2013 film about the shooting death of Oscar Grant, an unarmed young black man, by a white transit police officer put a spotlight on police conduct, and caught Thomas’s attention.
“In my anger and frustration, I wrote a short story about a boy named Khalil who was a lot like Oscar and a girl named Starr who was a lot like me,” she told Tre’vell Anderson of The Los Angeles Times.
Then came the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, 30 miles outside of Orlando, Florida. Thomas found another part of Starr’s character in Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s friend
who was talking with him on the phone when a neighborhood watch monitor shot him.
“When this young lady bravely got up and spoke on Trayvon Martin’s behalf, so many people and the media berated her,” Thomas told The Times. “They basically called her a
‘hoodrat’ because they didn’t like the way she spoke. But nobody celebrated the fact that she spoke.”
In the film, Starr’s father admonishes her to speak up, too. “When you ready to talk, you talk,” he says. “Don’t never let nobody make you be quiet.”
Starr is an occasional moderator in the movie, and it is in that role that she invokes her father’s view of Garden Heights: “Momma and Daddy says our life is here because our
people are here” she says. Her classmates are not
“The high school where you go to get jumped, high or pregnant—we don’t go there. Williamson is another world,” Starr says of the private school she attends. “So when I’m
here, I’m Starr, Version II.
“Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone reason to call her ghetto. And I hate myself for doing it.”
Thomas may have felt similar tension as a black college student on a nearly-all white campus in Jackson before code switch became the popular way to describe navigating between two very different worlds.
Years later in Atlanta, some black teenage girls facing the same dilemma could understand it well. Lexi Rogers, a 15-year-old Atlanta school girl, said Starr’s predicament was very much like her own.
Rogers attends Woodward Academy, an $18,000-a-year private school in Metropolitan Atlanta that boasts of being “the largest independent day school in the continental United
States.” Its student body is 29 percent African American.
“While the private school I attend definitely has more black kids than the fictional one Starrgoes to, I still relate to the inner struggles she faces balancing her school version and her neighborhood version,” Rogers wrote for an Atlanta area website that focuses on young voices.
“I was terrified to be called ghetto at school and was absolutely crushed when I got called ‘the Oreo’ at church,” she wrote. “I began to question who I really was. I never wanted to turn away from my race. I’m proud to be a black girl.
“However, I didn’t want to feel forced to change my behavior while with my friends from outside of the school. Starr feels the same way I did.”
Lyric Eschoe, unlike Starr and unlike Rogers, is home-schooled in Atlanta, but still found common ground with both.
“She’s 16 with the weight of the world on her shoulders,” Eschoe wrote of Starr. “She doesn’t fit in anywhere—she’s too black for the white kids but too white for the black kids. There’s an internal struggle that she doesn’t let anyone see that’s hurting her.”
Eschoe, who’s 17, said she recognized some of the buildings and street signs in the movie. “Garden Heights is almost identical to the neighborhood I reside in,” she wrote. “Every scene hurt because I saw myself on the same streets, and that very emotional fear added a whole other meaning to thinking, “It could’ve been me who was shot on the
Filming in Atlanta was a homecoming for Algee Smith, who was born in Michigan but grew up in Atlanta. His role in the movie is Khalil—whose 17-year-old, has a mother on drugs and a grandmother just diagnosed with cancer, and a kid brother who he’s trying to help care for by dealing drugs.
“I relate to Khalil a lot,” Smith told Essence magazine. “I feel like Khalil is passion. Khalil is a big Tupac fan. He’s a real family person, and he’s a young black man in America. I feel like I’m standing in that gap and representing for anybody that this has happened to.”
The book’s title, “The Hate U Give,” is borrowed from a signature phrase of the late rapper Tupac Shakur. Playing on the first four letters in the first four words, which spell THUG, he argued to society that “The Hate U Give” small children harms all, and explained as “THUG Life” the social behavior that it wrought.
“When these unarmed black people lose their lives, the hate they’ve been given screws us all,” Thomas told Cosmopolitan magazine’s Judith Ohikuare last year. “We see it in the form of anger and we see it in the form of riots.”
Shakur was killed in 1996, before the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, which also is a part of the book’s story. At one point in the movie, Starr kids Khalil about his taste in music. It’s “old stuff,” she says.
“Old stuff? What?” he comes back. “You better get up outta here with all that. ‘Pac is the truth.”
During the filming, Smith said, he frequently showed off his hometown to Amandla Stenberg, who plays Starr. Coming to Atlanta was a homecoming of sorts for her, even though she is a native of southern California.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was black and I went to a school across town that was white and privileged,” Stenberg told Chuck Barney of the Bay Area News Group earlier this month.
“The kids at my school wouldn’t come to my neighborhood because they associated it with gang violence. Or their parents wouldn’t let them, or it was simply a place that was
completely alien and foreign to them.”
“For the really painful, deep aspects of the film, I drew from experiences within my community. Experiences that I witnessed. Experiences that my older sister has had. …” she said. “I drew from the pain that we internalize within the black community, but don’t often give ourselves the time and space to process.”
The movie’s success could boost Georgia’s efforts to lure more producers with tax incentives, promotional and marketing benefits, and other ways to lower production costs
and make the most of the state’s variety of scenic backdrops, according to Stefanie Paupeck Harper of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
“Every corner of our city is important to the film industry…so many scenes, so many areas of southwest Atlanta that you wouldn’t think of for a Hollywood movie,” Mayor Keshia Lance-Bottoms said at a red carpet screening event in her city. “But I think it really speaks to how the world views Atlanta.”
Tillman seemed to agree. “Atlanta is a very popular place to shoot because it has many different looks and we were able to find a match for Jackson, Mississippi as Angie had in
mind in the book,” he said. “It had the feeling we were looking for, and the city was very open to having us there.”