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Lives in the balance

Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give (20th Century Fox)

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Lives in the balance

The Hate U Give tackles important topics but offers hollow advice

Critics are heaping praise on the fictional drama The Hate U Give for its message condemning racism and police brutality. But it’s one thing to spotlight problems, and another to offer substantive solutions.

The new film (rated PG-13 for foul language, violence, and drug references) begins as a story about an African-American girl juggling two polar opposite existences. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives with her parents and brothers in a lower-income neighborhood, but attends a private high school across town. At school, Starr talks and acts so as to fit in with her rich, white friends.

A traffic stop one night upends the fragile balance. A white policeman, mistaking a hairbrush for a handgun, shoots and kills Starr’s childhood friend, a small-time drug dealer. If Starr, the only witness, speaks publicly, as activists are urging, her school friends will learn the truth about her home life. A local drug kingpin, fearing his name might come up during Starr’s grand jury testimony, hunts the Carters.

Director George Tillman Jr. gets pulled in different directions, too, juggling teen drama and teachy diatribe. Stenberg’s sharp performance anchors the gripping film in authenticity, but Tillman lays the cop-bashing on thick. Even in church scenes, speeches usurp sermons.

The film rightly laments drugs as a “billion-dollar hustle” that plagues black neighborhoods, and three times quotes Tupac Shakur’s line that inspired the film’s title: “The hate you gave little infants [hurts] everybody.” (Sadly, Tillman neglects to call out another billion-dollar industry—abortion—destroying little children in black neighborhoods.)

Starr’s climactic speech, however noble, misses the mark: She tells a crowd of people they can “light up the darkness” by simply looking within themselves. The film’s bright spot: Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby). This imperfect but impressive father comforts his family and steers them clear of danger—a picture of what our perfect heavenly Father does for those who confess their inner darkness.