The Warring Worlds of “The Hate U Give”

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The powerful film The Hate U Give hit movie theatres everywhere last Friday.

Directed by George Tillman Jr., the film is based on the best-selling novel written by author Angie J. Thomas. The Hate U Give follows Starr (Amandla Stenberg) who witnesses her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) being shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. Starr wrestles with what is the right thing to do, as competing forces (police and their allies, a Black community seething from injustice, and a street gang making sure she follows the unwritten rules of “no snitching”) tell her to stay silent or speak out.

Though the plot focused on the whirlwind aftermath of the shooting, one of the central themes in the film was the idea of “double consciousness” and the inner conflicts that spring from it.

The idea of “double consciousness” was articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founding fathers of modern American sociology. In his seminal text The Souls of Black Folk­, he wrote about the idea of the double consciousness as the psycho-social identity divide many African Americans face in a majority white society; a country that is the only home they know, yet one which has historically been oppressive to them.

It’s the bittersweetness of being in one body, but having to shift between two worlds–a majority-white one and an isolated black one. Sometimes double consciousness forms as cognitive dissonance (Starr narrates that she feels “too Garden Heights for Williamson, too Williamson for Garden Heights”), but in our often-segregated society, it’s coped with by code-switching.

Code-switching is the social phenomenon where people perform their identity differently depending on the environment they are in. We all code-switch to some degree (you speak differently in front of your mother or a professor in public than you do with your best friend in private), but code-switching is something most relevant to Black people like Starr, who frequently travel between segregated spaces.

Starr lives in the predominantly Garden Heights, but goes to the mostly white private school Williamson. Though she doesn’t explicitly use the terms, Starr talks about double consciousness and code-switching when talking about the two “versions” of herself–the one at home and the one at school. She narrates about how at school, she needed to dress and act a certain way. There’s a scene where one of her friends says hi and Starr replies in standard English, enunciating each word. This contrasts to when we see her at a neighborhood party, where she feels free to speak in African American Vernacular English.

While at school, Starr laments that though her white friends can use slang associated with the “coolness” of blackness, she could not. She narrates: “slang makes them cool, slang makes me hood.” Though AAVE is a dialect with its own rules and structure (not “bad English”), Starr understand how speech can render her blackness legible in ways that amplify the implicit negative connotations her mostly non-black peers associate with it.

Starr was also trying to make sure she didn’t display any anger while at Williamson. Though she was dealing with the trauma of seeing her friend murdered and the political turmoil sparked by the shooting, she felt that she couldn’t show any anger, for fear that her classmates would see her as the “angry black girl.” In “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” Monique W. Morris talked about the ways black women and girls’ lives are “misunderstood, highly judged” in schools, the institutions charged with helping them flourish.

Throughout the film, Starr struggles to keep the two versions of herself separate. She has white friends she hangs out with from her school, and black friends she hangs out with in her neighborhood, but those two worlds don’t intersect until late in the film. She has a white boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), but she only meets at a restaurant close to her school (away from where she lives). When the whirlwind caused by Khalil’s murder swept through her life, Starr was scared to tell Chris what’s going on with her, fearing that he wouldn’t understand. She was also reluctant to introduce him to her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby)–a refined gang member turned small business owner. She not only is scared that her pro-black father won’t accept Chris, but also feels like she may be letting Maverick down by not keeping her worlds separate.

At an early age, Maverick gave her “the talk” at about how to interact with police and how she could do that with code-switching. And in a sense, a major reason why Khalil was murdered was his inability to code-switch, to render his black skin and masculinity non-threatening. Code-switching was something that eased tension in escalating situations, keeping Starr alive, safe, and away from the retaliation that could come from a fearful white gaze.

The Hate U Give was a heavy film that stirred many conflicting emotions in me–ones that, like Starr, I had repressed from some of the earlier years of my life.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago–a microcosm of America’s expansive diversity amidst salient segregation. My grade school years were spent living in mostly Black neighborhoods on the south and west sides, but I attended a mostly white school called Sutherland in Beverly Hills. Beverly is a relatively integrated place–in the 70s when middle class African Americans were moving in, the neighborhood didn’t follow the trend of white flight as much as Chicago’s other south side white neighborhoods. In the 80s, it bused students from black middle and working class areas such as Chatham to Sutherland. When I went there in the 90s and 2000s, I had great teachers and friends from many different races, though most of the Black students tended to live “down the hill” or “across the tracks” in the eastern side of Beverly.

I remember feeling like Starr, needing to act one way at school and one way at home. I remember having white friends I hanged with, had fun with, who I cared about, but couldn’t talk to about the experience of being black. None of my school friends knew my neighborhood friends, and vice versa. I got told I talked “ghetto” by white friends, and that I talked “white” by black friends (though I never equated “talking white” to intelligence as some problematically do, and I was mostly just confused that my some of black friends didn’t realize I was code-switching). Code-switching was natural to me, as fluid as walking from Point A to Point B.

Like Starr’s story, I remember the tension, and sometimes danger, that arose at points in which my two worlds collided. One winter break when I was home from grad school, a group of friends and I (three black, one white) were walking into my best friend’s house when police officer crept beside us to make sure we, the Black kids, weren’t “messing with him,” our white friend. In undergrad college, I had seen drunk white college kids curse at police officers and face zero repercussions. My frat brother and I had an officer pull his gun on us when we were putting flyers in cars for a party our chapter was throwing. Had that moment played out differently, I could have had a similar fate as Jhalil. And in high school, one of my best friends died when a drunk off duty officer ran him over on the sidewalk.

I cried during the scene when April Ofrah (Lisa Rae) said “We have nothing to lose but our chains” and Starr stood on the car to use the power of her voice. It was the moment she let all her pain and righteous anger run free. At the protest, she was finally able to exist fully, in one body at one time, and let out all the emotion she had been bottling up. That moment was cathartic for me as well–to see Starr break from the congenial comportment that contorts Black kids’ spirits.

On a big picture scale, The Hate U Give is a powerful film that successfully captures the contemporary Black Lives Matter moment. But on a personal level, it was a story for the Starrs of our society; a battle between two worlds seeking justice and reconciliation.

Joshua Adams is a writer and journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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