“The Hate U Give” is not your ordinary sentimental studio drama that rounds off the edges, designed for maximum uplift. Much credit goes to Angie Thomas’ edgy 2017 novel (whose title was inspired by Tupac Shakur’s “THUG LIFE”: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”), which remained on the New York Times Young Adult bestseller list for 50 weeks. That gave Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler the confidence to hew close to its gritty #BlackLivesMatter narrative about high schooler Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who finds her activist identity after witnessing a white police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend.
After its welcoming Toronto International Film Festival debut, “The Hate U Give” shot out of the gate in platform release — Fox is building word of mouth as it expands to more theaters — with rave reviews. But for the cast, the current success is just a natural extension of the galvanizing experience on set.
“This is what you get when we are able to tell our own stories our way,” said actor Russell Hornsby (“Fences,” “Seven Seconds”), who is generating Oscar talk for his fiercely tender role as Starr’s grocer father, Maverick. “We’re in this together, we want this to succeed. That’s rare. With this type of film, and the subject matter, you could botch it. Pull some punches. Take some teeth out of it. Dull it a little. People know when you are pulling the wool over their eyes. Young people will instantly tell everyone what’s real and not. They kept the authenticity.”
The film’s centerpiece is The Talk, when Maverick sits down his children and sternly directs them to always put their hands on the car dashboard if a police officer pulls them over. Both Hornsby and filmmaker George Tillman, Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Men of Honor”) were raised by parents who made them well aware of the dangers of being a black man anywhere near white cops.
Tillman pulled the project together smooth and fast after reading an early manuscript in January 2016, while directing an episode of “Luke Cage.” Having enjoyed an 18-year relationship with Fox 2000, he thought that Gabler would respond to the material. “It had edge and bite to it,” he said. “I knew the characters were there. You get into the police brutality, but the heart of it is this 16-year-old’s journey finding herself, and she is not ashamed of where she came from.”
At the same time, “Hunger Games” star and outspoken feminist Amandla Stenberg (who is now 19), had read the unpublished book and passionately pitched herself to Tillman for the role of Starr. “I never related to anything so hard,” said Stenberg in a phone interview, “in the timeless way it portrays #BlackLivesMatter and brings empathy and humanity to these experiences.”
A year later, after screenwriter Audrey Wells finished the 126-page script — sadly, she succumbed to cancer the day before the movie opened — Fox asked Stenberg to audition and commit. She did both. And it took three auditions to convince the studio that Hornsby, who usually plays lawyers and working professionals, would look natural in braids and tattoos. For the second audition, he showed up dressed for the part. The actor had played a range of roles in theater, but the Hollywood suits hadn’t seen them. “I’d done the work,” he said. “‘What are you talking about? I can do this!'”
Fox greenlit a $20-million movie to be shot in Atlanta, co-starring Regina Hall (“Support the Girls”) and “Detroit” star Algee Smith, with Common, Anthony Mackie, and Issa Rae.
Hornsby plays an ex-con who has built a life as a store owner and family man. “As a man he is strong and sturdy,” said Hornsby, “but he is also passionate and also tender and also gentle. He’s evolved.” In “The Hate U Give,” Maverick tells his daughter, “I want you to do better. I want to break the cycle.”
Tillman could relate. His father, who did not go to college, cried when he dropped him off at Chapman College, where Tillman fell in love with the French New Wave and Richard Lester on the way to learning his craft, first in Chicago and then Los Angeles.
Both Tillman and Stenberg related to Starr, a black teenager who straddles two identities: one at home with her family and friends in Garden Heights, another at Williamson Prep. Both had grown up in lower-income urban neighborhoods, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Inglewood in Los Angeles, respectively, and attended largely white private schools.
“Starr was very similar to me,” said Stenberg. “I was able to bring my own personal life experience, to make the dialogue and references authentic. I understood those dualities and complexities of how I present myself depending on the environment I was entering, in order to be accepted. A huge part of all that came from the book. I made sure to portray Starr in a way that wasn’t overly sanitized or stereotyped. She is so nuanced and real. It blew me out of the water, how she’s allowed to be so multidimensional in a way most black characters are not.”
The director organized a boot camp for his actors, giving them booklets with back stories for each character. “It’s called rehearsal,” said theater-trained Hornsby, while admitting that it’s not normal these days for a cast to get together for two-and-a-half weeks before shooting. This allowed Hornsby, Hall and Stenberg to bond as a family.
And it helped Hornsby to take on a mentor role for the younger actors, especially Stenberg. “He was constantly teaching me on set,” she said, “whether it was how to behave or navigate the industry or how to carry yourself and be grateful and professional, very much in the way a father would, never in a way that was demanding or reprimanding, always offering a guiding hand both creatively and professionally, from the moment we began rehearsals.”
During the film, Hornsby transitioned to being an elder statesman. “It’s no longer about me,” he said. “I have to be secure in my work and who I am and these young kids are looking for me to impart some wisdom, to be reassured. With Amandla, it was little things like reminding her to breathe; we’d talk about keeping everything simple.”