Trauma is a creeping menace, taking root in the body and passed down through family lines. It’s a hard thing to describe without the aid of clinical studies, and an even harder one to visualize on screen, but in the film The Hate U Give, based on the young adult novel of the same name, trauma is almost its own character, a force that envelops each of the people we get to know.
There’s Starr, played by Amandla Stenberg, who while trying to balance her life in her underserved, African-American neighborhood with her other life in lily white, private Williamson High School miles away, must contend with the trauma of seeing her childhood best friend murdered. The film revolves around her witnessing her second murder -- that of her other childhood friend Khalil who is killed by a police officer during a traffic stop -- and her attempts to come to terms with that trauma and use her voice to speak out against the injustice. But there's also her parents, Maverick and Lisa, played by Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby, who wrestle with how to shield their children from the violence and loss they themselves had to endure throughout their lives. There are Starr’s two brothers, Seven and Sekani, who must witness their father being victimized by police. And then there’s the black community that surrounds them in the fictional town of Garden Heights, living with the trauma that the local police force, as well as the neighborhood’s ruling gang, the King Lords, subjects them to on a daily basis.
It’s no easy task to convey the terror, shaking anger, and haunting memory of longstanding trauma. But in her impressive performance, Stenberg nails it, evoking that hurt even when Starr is forced to swallow it down in front of her classmates and white boyfriend Chris, played by K.J. Apa (Archie on Riverdale). From the moment she witnesses her friend murdered by a police officer to the moment she screams "Khalil lived" into a megaphone from the top of a cop car to a crowd of gathered protesters demonstrating against the inevitable grand jury decision not to press charges against the officer responsible, it’s impossible not to feel that ungraspable pain resounding from the screen.