After highly successful films including “Soul Food,” “Barbershop” and “Notorious,” director George Tillman Jr. seeks to address significant social ills within the African-American community with the release of “The Hate U Give.” The film debuts in theaters nationwide on Oct. 19.
Trailers for the film, which stars “The Hunger Games” alumna Amandla Stenberg, have already sparked a discussion about police brutality and code-switching — issues which Tillman said were timely and appropriate to address in today’s climate.
“The Hate U Give” portrays the fictional life of Starr, an African-American teenager who is forced to deal with the complexities of living in the inner city, while attempting to conceal its effects from friends at the suburban private school that she attends.
The film is an adaptation of the novel written by Angie Thomas. The book’s title is an ode to rapper Tupac Shakur, whose “T.H.U.G.” LIFE tattoo was said to be an acronym for “the hate you give.”
“The (film) is about a 16-year-old African-American girl (who) goes through identity issues,” Tillman said. “She lives in the inner city, but goes to a white private school. She code-switches; she’s afraid to be herself in a white environment. When she’s in a black environment, she feels like she can’t be another part of [herself]; people may think she’s being too ‘white.’”
Issues of race, family dynamics and police brutality are magnified exponentially when Starr witnesses her best friend being shot and killed by a white police officer.
Tillman said he intends to not only entertain with his new film, but to challenge viewers’ ideas about issues that he feels are not being adequately discussed.
In fact, the story resonated with him as soon as he began reading it, he said. When the book’s protagonist is at a house party, she begins to question people’s expectations of her, and whether she even belonged at the function.
“Sometimes—and we all must feel like this— [we wonder] am I good enough to be who I am around certain individuals?” Tillman said. “With me working in Hollywood as an African-American director, I always tried to fit in. Starr has these same issues. I felt like this book spoke to me about these issues.”
“The Hate U Give” features a bevy of Hollywood heavyweights, including Regina Davis, Russell Hornsby, Issa Rae and Common. However, the most important role, Tillman said, was expertly carried by 19-year-old Stenberg. Tillman said that he knew Stenberg would play Starr the moment he met her.
“When I met her…I said, ‘This is my Starr. This is the person who was meant to play this role.’ She grew up in inner-city Inglewood, California, and went to a private school. It was in her soul; her spirit was Starr.”
Algee Smith (BET’s “The New Edition Story,” “Detroit”) would also prove to be a great fit for the cast, the veteran director said.
“I saw him in the ‘New Edition’ story,” Tillman said. “He’s good; I thought he was Ralph (Tresvant) at times. He was born to play this part. He’s a very good-looking guy, but he had a soul.
“And I think that’s what people forget with these young kids who are confronted by police brutality. These are people we care about; these are people that we love. And I feel Algee had that.”
Tillman said he feels the film is important for this day and age, particularly for the dialogue that it will create, and for the questions it will hopefully answer.
“We need more films that talk about the 10-Step Black Panthers Program, Malcolm X, MLK, Black Pride, Black people, Black families,” he said. “It’s one of the first times as a director that I can just be authentic and let it come out, [based] on my experiences. It’s coming from a true, honest place, and that’s what’s important.”
Finally, Tillman emphasized how important it is for people to support Black movies early and often, particularly during the opening weekend.
“I think the most important thing is to go out and support the film first weekend, to let the studios know we do [films] that mean something. Tell friends and family to go see it, too, so the word can spread.”