I spent a lot of time at the movies this weekend. I felt compelled to because there was so much out there I just wanted to see in a darkened room. See, it had been a rough week. Life has a way of beating you up a little and escaping it into someone else’s narrative can help remind you that at the very least you’re not alone. Two movies I wanted to see had similar themes steeped in bringing to life the catalyst of the Black Lives Matter movement: the recognition of senseless police brutality and violence towards Black men and women in America.
The Hate U Give had a leg up on many of the movies that opened this weekend. Penned first as the critically acclaimed debut novel of Angie Thomas, the script was adapted by Audrey Wells, a well-established feminist screenwriter, who sadly passed away from a long battle with cancer the day before the movie premiered. Due to the strength of the book and the notable efforts of a talented publicist the movie version was being talked about only a few weeks after the book’s release in early 2017. I was an early reader of the book and loved it. You can find my review of it here. I loved it so much that since I wrote that review I’ve given away at least a dozen copies of the book.
Therefore, it was not a leap for me to assume that I’d enjoy the movie, especially after I heard that Amandla Stenberg had secured the lead role of Starr Carter. I wasn’t wrong. At the tender age of 19, Ms. Stenberg is a consummate actress with an expressive and beautiful face. A movie star’s face. She also has the benefit of having an inherent understanding of the political ramifications and tribulations of her race. Her breakout role as Rue in Hunger Games six years ago was publicly vilified simply because, for many naysayers, she was the wrong skin color to play that part. If you followed her career or her twitter feed then you know that being catapulted into the fray like that seems to have made Ms. Stenberg a thoughtful activist about a lot of things and it comes through clearly in her interpretation of Starr and undoubtedly helps her carry this movie.
Many of the things I loved about the book transitioned easily to film. The natural joys, laughter, and love emblematic within contemporary Black life and family were present in ways that you rarely see it done on the big screen. Director George Tillman, Jr. also did a good job of showing the uncomfortable dichotomy of leading a double life as a black teenager who lives in the hood but goes to school in a privileged white community. Creating a separate prism for each world on screen made some aspects of both worlds seem surreal, even farcical. In fact, if I have any criticism of the movie at all it was the occasional shades of unrealistic fairy tale that permeated throughout how the movie looked and felt at times, which may have been an overreaction on my part because often the movie, like the book, seemed geared to a younger audience.
The real delight I found in this movie was in the acting of many of its superb cast. Khalil was played by Algee Smith. It may seem like an unfortunate choice of words but honestly, I have to say he blew me away for someone who was on the screen for such a short period of time. The scenes between Khalil and Starr were all the more moving, lovely, and romantic because of their tragic end and both young actors were pitch perfect.
Starr’s family play a key role in conveying this story. Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby as Starr’s parents, Lisa and Maverick Carter, were excellent. I found Hornsby’s performance particularly riveting which was important since it had been written that way by Ms. Thomas. He was entirely believable as a man who had seen everything he needed to see from the dark side of gang life and incarceration then used that knowledge to not only pull himself out of the life but also share a dignified awareness for his family that the game was not rigged in their favor from the get go. Anthony Mackie is a good actor but I’m afraid as the gang’s leader King, he came off as a fairly one-dimensional villain. I don’t blame him for that because the role was written that way. Instead we heard depth in some possible interpretations of Tupac’s phrase “Thug Life”, which obviously inspired the novel Ms. Thomas wrote and incidentally has absolutely nothing to do with criminality.
There were others in small sometimes thankless roles: Issa Rae, from Insecure matures as an activist attorney; KG Apa from Riverdale plays Starr’s earnest but clueless and melanin deprived boyfriend; Sabrina Carpenter as Starr’s school friend whose dense mimicry of black verbiage is good enough to be bloodcurdlingly; and Common as Starr’s uncle, who is also a man living in two disparate worlds, as is heart wrenchingly revealed in one quiet pivotal scene with his niece.
I think the movie pulled off the nearly impossible in that overall it was almost as good as the book. However, it was small moments I’ll remember like Khalil’s smile in the car or Starr’s sudden fury at the words fried chicken, or even the first five minutes of the movie that will stay with me. The movie begins strongly with Maverick Carter giving his very young children the talk as their mother watches on. If you’re Black you undoubtedly already know what “the talk” means. If you don’t know I suggest seeing the movie and gaining some awareness of your own.
I knew little about Monsters and Men going into it but the movie at a trim 95 minutes packed quite a punch just the same. A quiet economical film, it tells the tightly interwoven stories of three different men, one right after the other, though the connections between them are not immediately apparent from the outset.
All three men’s stories play out in Brooklyn near a corner deli where the killing of an unarmed Black man by a cop galvanizes the community. I’m not sure if it’s that the stories are told from the perspective of three men of color or that it is obviously a gritty, true-to-life view of everyday New York City that the movie feels immersed in a dark and sometimes suspenseful documentary type realism. Perhaps it’s just the inherent style of Reinaldo Marcus Green, who wrote and directed the film with the help of both Sundance and Spike Lee’s fellowship funds. This is Mr. Green’s first feature film but he has numerous credits doing film shorts and clearly has a strong world view.
The first main character’s story is about a witness to the killing stirringly played by Anthony Ramos, of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton and seen too as Lady Gaga’s bestie in the recently released A Star is Born. John David Washington of Ballers and Black Klansman fame is decidedly more serious in this role as a stressed police officer struggling with the effects of racism and the micro-aggressions a Black cop can feel staying on one side of the blue wall. Finally, relative newcomer Kelvin Harrison, Jr. plays a star high school baseball player with a myopic father brilliantly and intensely played by Rob Morgan. Each of the three main characters has a difficult decision to make that relates to his personal discomfort dealing with life as a Black or Latino man in an urban environment where he is constantly racially profiled and consequently lives in fear or just knows someone else who does.
This is not a movie about women but both Nicole Beharie and Jasmine Cephas Jones perform admirably nonetheless as the beleaguered spouses of Washington and Ramos respectively.
I love the ending of this film for all its obvious symbolisms. It’s definitely a worthy option for getting to know the work of Reinaldo Marcus Green, which we will definitely be privy to seeing again and a must see if the subject matter is one you care about.