“The Hate U Give” is the #BlackLivesMatter book and film we all need.
Your heart is in its hands, being made to beat with empathy as you see there are humans behind the hashtags and bodybags and protests against brutality. It delves in to the beauty, strength, and the sting of 16-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) finding her power as a young black girl forced to code-switch between her rich, white private school and life in her black neighborhood.
But it’s also an ode to black fatherhood. Maverick “Mav” Carter (Russell Hornsby) is one of the most important black dads on the big screen since Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles in “Boyz n the Hood” (1991).
Styles is aggressively loving, guiding and keeping his son in line as he teaches him about violence, gentrification, responsibility, and community.
Twenty-seven years later we have Mav. “The Hate U Give,” opening Friday, starts with him giving his kids “the talk.” Not the birds-and-bees awkward convo most kids endure. The talk black children get to prepare them for interaction with police. Mav wants them to comply under all circumstances.
But he also instills within them the tenets of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program, “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,” he has them memorize and recite. Something Starr, his daughter, will take to heart when she witnesses a cop murder her best friend and has to make the choice to speak up or not.
The role of Mav has been an emotional matrix for Hornsby, 44. At times, he got choked up filming.
As a husband and father who grew up in Oakland where the spirit of the Black Panther Party was born, it was important for him to reflect that old-school strength and the reality of black life.
“I can only look through the lens I have as a black man in America who has been called nigger before, who has been pulled over by the police unjustly, who has been put to the ground by the police,” says Hornsby, a Boston University alumnus. “Ain’t no two ways about it. We’re fighting against injustice. Kids — black kids — are forced to grow up too soon. Mav wanted to impart wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to his kids.”
He doesn’t just preach to them. He leads by example. Mav dotes on their mama. He owns the neighborhood market. He believes in giving back to the community.
Mav’s a force of love and lessons in their lives.
“Angie could have easily made Lisa [Regina Hall] a single mom,” Hornsby says of the book’s author, Angie Thomas. “That’s what I love about her. She included a strong black father. There are times when I feel like we have been forgotten.”
From “Lincoln Heights” to “Seven Seconds” to “The Affair,” Hornsby is drawn to portraying the nuance of the black family and showing strong black men.
“I don’t mean to offend anyone,” he says, “But there’s an old saying a friend once said to me: ‘There was a time when the boats were made of wood and the men were made of steel, now the men are made of wood and the boats are made of steel. Isn’t that a shame?’ I take that to mean different things at different times.”
Conservatives often weaponize this 2013 Centers for Disease Control report statitistic: 71.5 percent of black, non-Hispanic children in 2013 were born to unmarried women. The recurring narrative in America is black dads are absent.
“The Hate U Give” upends the trope while recognizing one doesn’t have to be perfect to be a loving and present dad.
Mav is not Uncle Phil, of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” He willingly went to prison for something he didn’t do, he’s a former gang member, he cheated. Yet he has turned his life around.
The complex layers of Mav dispel the stereotypes Americans have been taught about black people.
“I wanted to represent the brothas I have seen when I go to the rhythm section of Oakland, hearing brothas speak and tell me about their journeys,” he says. “Men who have been to prison and found themselves, brothas who have made mistakes but are loving their wives and children trying to protect them and educate them. These men do exist.”
And they are active fathers. If folk bothered to look closer at the studies, they’d realize unmarried does not equal deadbeat dad. CDC figures also show nearly 60 percent of black fathers live with their children and are more likely than white fathers to take their kids to activities and review homework with their children on a daily basis.
“It’s important to understand cultural dynamics,” Hornsby says. “We wanted to show a loving couple and family. We honor each other. And black ain’t no monolith, but this is uniquely and unapologetically black. We used to wear shirts that said, ‘It’s a black thang you wouldn’t understand,’ and I had a mentor that said, ‘Nah brothas, you got it wrong. It’s a black thang, let me help you understand.’ ”
“The Hate U Give,” Hornsby believes, is a time for that empathy and understanding.
The book, at the top of the New York Times bestsellers YA hardcover list for 83 weeks, was the eighth most banned book of 2017. We can’t keep hiding from uncomfortable truths.
“We are not apathetic in this country,” he says. “There is so much stimuli coming at young people, you don’t even have time to grieve before something new happens. We are desensitized to the issues. This film gives you two hours and 13 minutes to just sit and feel and absorb it in your spirit. You’re going to open your heart.”