'The Hate U Give' Star Says The Novel Was Like 'Reading My Own Diary'

Oct 20, 2018
Originally published on October 22, 2018 12:01 pm

As Amandla Stenberg prepared for her lead role in the film adaptation of The Hate U Give, she devoured Angie Thomas' 2017 young adult novel. "Reading the book became this strange, spiritual thing because it started to feel like I was reading my own diary," she says.

Like protagonist Starr Carter, Stenberg grew up in a black neighborhood, but attended an overwhelmingly white school. "I had a very parallel experience," she says. Stenberg was 10 when she began attending a school across town; she was one of just four black girls in her grade.

"I became really familiar with the experience of being isolated in my ethnicity," Stenberg says. She found it hard to "show all the way up" or be fully herself.

"I wanted to fit into this space in which the culture was really white and privileged and kind of alternative," she says. "So I learned how to adapt to that environment in order to feel included."

In the movie, Starr also learns to code switch to fit in. "That means flipping a switch in my brain" around her prep school classmates, she says. But she's proud of where she's from — Starr "loves her blackness," Stenberg explains.

One night, Starr and her childhood friend Khalil are pulled over by a white police officer who shoots Khalil when he mistakes his hairbrush for a weapon.

Thomas told NPR she was inspired to write The Hate U Give after the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant — a young, African-American man who was killed by a white transit officer in Oakland on New Year's Day in 2009.

Grant was unarmed when he was shot, and Thomas was struck by the media coverage that focused on Grant's criminal record rather than the circumstances of his death. "More people were talking about what he had done in his past than the fact that he unjustly lost his life," Thomas said.

Starr is the only witness to Khalil's killing. While she wants the police officer to face justice, she's afraid to speak out. Without giving too much away, she has good reasons for wanting to hold back.

But Starr's father doesn't accept her silence — he raised his children to fight to be heard. He's taught them the Black Panther's Ten-Point Program — including "an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people" — and to work for justice "by any means necessary."

"So why you gonna be quiet?" he asks Starr.

There were special screenings of the film around the country before its official release. Students at Washington, D.C., area public schools had the opportunity to see the film at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Tiana Minor, 16, who attends Fauquier High School in Virginia, says society tries to "overlook" or "sugarcoat" issues of racial injustice. She thinks the film will help people open their eyes to what she knows are "real-life problems."

Minor's classmate, Devon Lewis, 16, says he understands Starr's reluctance to speak out. "She wants to talk, but she can't because she just doesn't have the voice yet," he says. Lewis adds that he liked the way the father in the story named his daughter "Starr" for "light." That's a detail Stenberg likes, too.

"Something that's so beautiful about black culture is that we give our children power in their names," Stenberg says. "My name actually means 'power' in Zulu and Xhosa. It was something that my mom was very intentional with. I think we recognize that it's a tough world out there, and so we give our children names that they can use as superpowers."

This notion of what you "give your children" is referenced in the title of the book and movie: The Hate U Give. It comes from Tupac Shakur's THUG LIFE: The Hate U Give Little Infants F***** Everybody. As Amandla Stenberg says — the love you give is even more powerful.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the new movie "The Hate U Give," Amandla Stenberg plays the protagonist Starr Carter. She's a teenager who knows how to code switch. She lives in a struggling, predominately black neighborhood, but she goes to school at the private, affluent, mostly white Williamson Prep.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HATE U GIVE")

AMANDLA STENBERG: (As Starr Carter) That means flipping a switch in my brain. Williamson Starr doesn't use slang. If a rapper would say it, she doesn't, even if her white friends do.

MARTIN: NPR's Elizabeth Blair spoke with actor Amandla Stenberg about what it was like to play a teenager who's trying to find her voice in the midst of trauma.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Like a lot of teenagers, Starr Carter defines herself partly through the music she loves. Amandla Stenberg says, take the first time we see Starr onscreen.

STENBERG: "DNA" by Kendrick Lamar is playing, which is really evocative of who she is.

BLAIR: Why?

STENBERG: Because she loves her blackness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got - I got - I got - I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA. [Expletive] quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA.

BLAIR: "The Hate U Give" zooms in on what happens to a family traumatized by the death of a neighborhood boy, Starr's childhood friend Khalil. One night, the two of them were pulled over by a white police officer. Khalil was unarmed when the police officer shot him. "The Hate U Give" is based on the book of the same name by novelist Angie Thomas. Last year, she told NPR she was inspired to write it after the shooting death of Oscar Grant by a transit officer in Oakland. Grant was unarmed at the time he was killed. Thomas says she was struck by the media coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ANGIE THOMAS: More people were talking about what he had done in his past than the fact that he unjustly lost his life.

BLAIR: Like Starr, Angie Thomas also grew up code switching, and so did Amandla Stenberg. Stenberg says she devoured Thomas's book.

STENBERG: Reading the book starts to become this kind of strange spiritual thing because it started to feel like I was reading my own diary.

BLAIR: Would you mind reading a little bit from the book?

STENBERG: Sure. (Reading) I've seen it happen over and over again - a black person gets killed just for being black and all hell breaks loose. I've tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I'm too afraid to speak.

BLAIR: Starr's father is having none of it. He wants his children to fight to be heard. In one emotional scene, he makes them recite the Black Panthers' a 10-point program.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HATE U GIVE")

STENBERG: (As Starr Carter) We want an immediate end to police brutality.

RUSSELL HORNSBY: (As Maverick 'Mav' Carter) Finish it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And the murder of black people and people of color and oppressed people.

HORNSBY: (As Maverick 'Mav' Carter) By what means?

STENBERG: (As Starr Carter) By any means necessary.

HORNSBY: (As Maverick 'Mav' Carter) By what means?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character)By any means necessary.

HORNSBY: (As Maverick 'Mav' Carter) By what means?

STENBERG: (As Starr Carter) By any means necessary.

HORNSBY: (As Maverick 'Mav' Carter) So why you going to be quiet?

BLAIR: Without giving too much away, Starr eventually does find the courage to speak up. At a recent screening of "The Hate U Give" for D.C.-area high schools at the Smithsonian, 16-year-old Tiana Minor says there is truth to this movie.

TIANA MINOR: It really opened people's eyes about real-life problems that I guess people try to overlook in society or try to, I guess, like, sugar coat and make them not seem as bad as they really are.

BLAIR: Minor's classmate, Devon Lewis (ph), says he could relate to Starr's reluctance to speak up.

DEVON LEWIS: She wants to talk but she can't because she just doesn't have that voice yet. And then once she got the voice, it was just like, boom.

BLAIR: Lewis said he liked learning that her father named her Starr for light. It's a detail actor Amandla Stenberg likes, too.

STENBERG: I think that's something that's so beautiful about black culture is we give our children power in their names. My name actually means power in Zulu and Xhosa. And it was something that my mom was very intentional with. You know, I think we recognize that it's a tough world out there, and so we give our children names that they can use as superpowers.

BLAIR: This notion of what you give your children is referenced in the title of the book and the movie "The Hate U Give." It's from Tupac Shakur's philosophy - thug life. The hate you give little infants Fs everybody. And as Stenberg says, the love you give is even more powerful. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.