A Teen Activist Gives Her Personal Take on 'The Hate U Give'

'The Hate U Give' opened to rave reviews earlier this month. But what does a Black teen activist who's been impacted by police brutality make of the film? We asked one to report back.

by Roshae Harrison
Oct 30 2018, 4:07pm

Left to right: Roshae Harrison (photo provided by subject), promotional stills

Roshae Harrison is a 18-year old criminal justice student and activist from Hartford, Connecticut.

Being Black in America is hard. You’re given something that you can’t hide from anyone: your Blackness. Being Black is beautiful, being Black is enriching, but being Black is also terrifying at times. Watching The Hate U Give as a Black woman was heart-wrenching and emotionally draining, but also eye-opening and familiar.

The Hate U Give is a 2017 young adult fiction novel written by Angie Thomas, which was recently adapted into a teen drama movie directed by George Tillman Jr. It stars Amandla Stenberg as Starr: a young Black woman who attends a predominantly white prep school on a scholarship, but lives in a predominantly Black, deprived neighborhood. Starr struggles to juggle the two worlds she co-exists in. When her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) is shot and killed in front of her by a white police officer as he drives her home from a party, Starr struggles to tell her account of the shooting as she knows she must face the task of being seen as a “ghetto” charity-case to her upper crust white peers or a snitch to her Black community.

Starr—a smart, spunky teenager, determined to make it out of her neighborhood through gaining a rigorous education—reminded me a lot of myself. Like me, Starr is aware of the way our complexion determines how we must act around the police. In an early scene flashing back to years before, Starr’s Dad, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) tells her, her brother, and cousin exactly how to act around the police, and the dangers they may face if they make a move the police officer can perceive as wrong.

Growing up, the police always frightened me. I knew to stay away from them, to always do exactly what they say, never talk back, and to keep my hands in their sight at all times. My brother would get into heated arguments with the police, and I often could be found in the backseat, screaming at him to do what they say, out of fear for his life. So when I watched Starr plead with Khalil to immediately put his hands on the dashboard, and not to reach in the car, not even to check on her, his scared friend, the situation felt very familiar to me.

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In The Hate U Give, Maverick, Starr’s dad, spent some time in prison. While the film still uses the all-too-familiar trope of the Black father who's been incarcerated, it subverts it by showing Maverick as a devoted father and husband, who uses his experiences to teach his children. I found it a refreshing depiction of a Black father in a mainstream, Hollywood movie.

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Some of The Hate U Give’s acting choices were also beautiful. For example, in an early scene, when Starr talks about code switching (the act of attempting to strip away one’s “Black” vernacular, look, or mannerisms in an attempt to assimilate into white spaces) she takes off her hoodie: that symbolizes, in this respect, Trayvon Martin’s tragic death. Later in the film, when Starr chooses to embrace her Blackness as an integral part of her identity, she wears the hoodie freely, in front of all of her fellow white students.

Of course, the film isn’t perfect. In particular, I found some of the casting choices problematic. Starr, the smart and well-rounded main character was played by a light-skinned actress, while her more apparently “ghetto” friends all had darker skin: reiterating the way movies often portray darker skinned actors in a negative light. But The Hate U Give provided one of the clearest depictions of how Black people can become victims of racially discriminatory systems, and about how difficult it can be to resist this oppression. One moment in particular gave me goosebumps: when Issa Rae, who plays April, a local activist, says, “it's impossible to be unarmed when your Blackness is the weapon that they fear.”

Roshae Harrison. Photo provided by subject.

This film, hit all of my expectations. I expected to be angry, sad, and hopeful in the span of two hours and twelve minutes, and I was. But I also felt hopeful about our future. Although the experience of watching The Hate U Give can be challenging, particularly for Black people, it’s also a powerful tool for dialogue, especially as it’s being shown in cinemas across our nation. The movie has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and is also being used as a focal point in many classrooms, including my own, to open up the floor for dialogue about tough topics.

Opening a conversation about police brutality between various communities is important, so that we can all try to find solutions together. Because the truth is, Black people are more likely to experience police brutality. Our Blackness is seen as dangerous, and our skin color is seen as threatening to police officers. It doesn’t matter if we are unarmed, because we will never be able to strip our skin color.

Watching The Hate U Give made me even more determined to expand my activism in different forms. I want to stand atop of a police car and scream through a megaphone all the names of my fallen brothers and sisters: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland. The list goes on, and will tragically continue to go on unless young activists like myself take a stand. Otherwise, like April said, it will be the same story, just a different name.