“The Hate U Give,” a forward-thinking drama of racial identity filled with equal amounts of rage and love, is a powerful movie of its moment.
“I’ve always wanted to do movies that had strong themes, but that were also entertaining,” director George Tillman Jr. says of the picture based on a young adult novel by Angie Thomas opening this week.
“People have been standing up and clapping after the film, and it’s inspiring,” said Tillman, in The City with actors Amandla Stenberg and Russell Hornsby for a screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
“The Hate U Give” is about Starr Carter (Stenberg), a black teen who lives in a tough neighborhood and attends a white prep school. Depending on where she is, she adopts different behaviors for different crowds.
She’s forced to reconcile the worlds when she witnesses a white cop shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith). If she testifies, everyone will find out who she really is.
“I’m in my 40s, and I feel like I was able to relate to Starr, because of her identity, her race, her relationships, her feelings about police brutality,” says Tillman, who made “Soul Food,” “Faster” and “Notorious.”
“A lot of kids — I have a 15 year-old — seem so smart,” he continues. “I feel like some of the films in the past have maybe dumbed things down a little bit. So I just took the approach of the novel, which is be honest and truthful. I thought the issue should not be YA. It should be adult.”
Tillman found a wonderful collaborator in veteran screenwriter Audrey Wells, a white San Francisco native who, sadly, died Oct. 4 of cancer at age 58.
Tillman calls her amazing: “Our first conversation, she said, ‘I’ve heard that some people think I can’t do it.’ And I heard the passion in her voice,” he says.
Wells, who directed and wrote “Guinevere” and “Under the Tuscan Sun,” understood what really drives the film, says Tillman. Though some may think the inciting incident is the shooting, it’s really when Starr walks down the hall and says, “I’m not happy being who I am.”
Tillman says, “The story is finding out who you are. Audrey’s a pro, and once we hit on that, it was off to the races.”
It also was Wells’ idea to begin the movie with Starr’s father Maverick (Hornsby) telling his children what to do when pulled over by white police.
Hornsby, a Bay Area native best known for the TV series “Grimm,” says performing that scene “messed” him up: “You start to realize the impact of what you’re saying, and, having two boys of my own, realizing I’ll possibly have to do this talk for them. But you take the sentimentality out of it, and you deal with the love, and the need.”
Stenberg, who played Rue in “The Hunger Games,” said her life experience is similar to Starr’s. But she wishes she had some of the character’s wisdom when she was in high school: “I could have avoided so much self-doubt, so much confusion, feelings of isolation.”
Tillman, who went to a white public school before navigating Hollywood, called making the movie a “healing” experience. Before it, he says, “I was always altering myself, wondering if I was good enough, doubting who I was.”
IF YOU GO
The Hate U Give
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Common
Written by: Audrey Wells
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes