(2018) Drama (20th Century Fox) Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common, Algee Smith, Sabrina Carpenter, K.J. Apa, Dominique Fishback, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright, Megan Lawless, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Tony Vaughn, Marcia Wright, Al Mitchell, Karan Kendrick, Jevon Johnson, Mike Stoudt, Tye Claybrook Jr., Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by George Tillman Jr.
In the latter years of the 20-teens, it was fashionable for those of white privilege to say that race relations had markedly improved. After all, blacks can vote now, can’t they? They can use the same bathrooms as white people, can’t they? They’re not in chains anymore, are they?
The chains that African-Americans wear in the 21st century are much more subtle than iron but just as binding and just as evil. We can see those shackles so clearly in this adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel.
Starr Carter (Stenberg) is a bright, vivacious 16-year-old African-American girl who lives in Garden Heights, a predominantly black working-class neighborhood. Her father Maverick (Hornsby) is a former activist who had a bad run a few years ago and ended up doing jail time as a gang member for local gang leader King (Mackie). He currently owns a corner grocery market in the Heights; Starr’s mother (King), however, wants her babies to escape the Hood and to that end she has sent Starr, her brother Seven (Johnson) and younger sister Sekani (TJ Wright) to Williamson Prep, an upper-crust private school which is mostly white.
Starr exists in two different worlds which she is able to compartmentalize at first. However, while being driven home from a party by her childhood friend Khalil (Smith), they are pulled over by a white cop for no apparent reason. Although Starr begs Khalil to keep his hands on the dashboard and to obey every command given him by the obviously nervous patrolman, Khalil adopts a more confrontational attitude and when he reaches for a hairbrush inside the car, the panicked cop shoots him dead.
The shooting of another unarmed black youth puts the community into an uproar. Starr, the only eyewitness, is terrified if she comes forward to testify in front of the grand children that she and her family will be targeted by the police. Equally real is King’s desire that Starr not testify because it would come out that Khalil worked for King as a drug dealer. This is not information King is particularly eager to see go public.
Starr is caught in the center of a ticking time bomb. On the one hand, she wants to honor Khalil’s memory by standing up for him; on the other hand, she wants to protect her family. Doing the right thing never seemed so hard.
The movie captures the flavor of the African-American community in a way that makes it seem almost idyllic, from the ranks of the community to the warmth of family. It also doesn’t shy away from portraying the violence in the community; a party is interrupted by gunshots, and King in a particularly vicious move orders a store to be firebombed with children inside.
Still, the frustration of the black community is very palpable and very understandable from the very first scene, in which Maverick explains to his children how to survive an encounter with the police. This is not a talk white parents need to have with their kids but it is tragically all-too-common in African-American homes. The script makes no bones about the conditions that have created this situation.
The star here is Starr, or rather, Amandla Stenberg who is absolutely riveting. She gives Starr an inner strength that shows through even when she’s full of doubt. Starr has a playful side that Stenberg captures nicely, but also a vulnerable side. Starr is one of the most nuanced characters to come out of literature in the past decade, and she’s one of the most nuanced characters to come out of the movies as well, thanks largely to Stenberg. Hornsby also gets points for a strong performance as Maverick.
The movie stumbles a bit in its occasional strident tone; not that it’s unjustified, mind you, but it can be preachy in places. The ending is a little bit out there, and there are a few plot contrivances that felt a little forced. It also is a fairly long movie which might not sit well with its target audience. However, if you give this film a chance you will find it might just strike a powerful chord in you. That is, unless you’re one of those folks who think that African-Americans should be grateful for the strides they’ve made over the past sixty years. Then again, those folks are the least likely to want to see a movie like this.
REASONS TO SEE: Stenberg shows real strength in her performance. Captures the positives of African-American culture; the sense of community and family, for example.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes grows overly strident in its message (although that is somewhat understandable).
FAMILY VALUES: This is definitely adult, thematically speaking. There is also quite a bit of profanity, some violence and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Audrey Wells died of cancer the day before the film was released, 13 days before the national wide release.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters and Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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