“It is impossible to be unarmed when our blackness is the weapon they fear.”

by Nanette “D.” Massey

The movie The Hate U Give opened this past weekend at Buffalo movie houses to such praise as “deserving of an Oscar nod”. It is based on the novel of the same name by writer Angie Thomas, which debuted at number one on the New York Times best seller list in 2017. The story surrounds an unarmed black student’s death at the hands of a white police officer and its aftermath on various communities, institutions, and individual characters.

Thomas was at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in September as the featured speaker for the Buffalo Humanities Festival. The annual event, a presentation of the U.B. Humanities Institute, seeks to foster dialogue, share ideas, and encourage the enjoyment of the humanities.

Thomas described the Christian, white college in Mississippi she went to in stark contrast to the poor neighborhood of her upbringing. “To sum it up, my classmates tend to say ‘I love Jesus but I don’t think anybody should have any rights.’” The school was only ten minutes away from her home, but a world apart nonetheless. Thomas knowingly explained “in my neighborhood you got the chicken place where you spend five dollars on a ten piece and you’re like ‘dang, I got all that for five dollars?’…In that neighborhood you’ve got huge homes, manicured lawns,…and the hipster chicken places where you spend forty dollars and be like ‘dang, that’s all I got?’

Against this backdrop Thomas honed with great precision her code-switching skills, aiming not to appear “other” to those around her. On the bus her headphones were bumpin’ rap music from Tupac, but changed to the Jonas Brothers by the time she stepped on campus (whom she professes to love still, saying “don’t judge me!”)

At a professor’s Christmas party, everyone picked random gag gifts and Thomas ended up with a toy water pistol and reference book about prescription drugs. A white student joked she thought it ironic the “girl from the ghetto” got a gun and book about drugs. Thomas’ two versions of herself were stuck at an impasse. She let the incident go without a word, but listened to Tupac’s expletive-laden “Hit ‘Em Up” on the way home to balance the indignity she felt. “I was more angry at myself for not speaking up.”

The 2009 New Year’s Day shooting in an Oakland train station of Oscar Grant by a white police officer who was ultimately not held accountable dismayed Thomas again. Amateur video of the incident was posted online.“In my neighborhood, Oscar Grant was one of us. I knew guys just like him.” At college, the reaction among her white friends was consistently more along the lines of questioning Grant’s unrelated criminal record, and speculation on whether failure to comply with officers may have ushered in his fate. “I was angry, I was frustrated, I was hurt and I took it personally.” Thomas’ classmates “couldn’t quite wrap their heads around why someone would mourn him.”

Turning her art into political activism birthed the short story for her writing class that became the book and movie. “We have to take the political personally. You see, it’s one thing to look at Tamir Rice [12-year old shot by a white officer in 2014] and say ‘I feel sorry for his family.’ It’s another to look at Tamir Rice and mourn for him as if he was family. I do. And I need all of you to do the same. Whether Tamir looked like you or not.”

In the book, Thomas does indeed make the political personal. News reports of police shootings can leave us feeling distant from the events, or with an easy to digest either/or picture. Thomas fleshes out each character and their relationship with the shooting fully such that it is impossible to see the incident in only two dimensions. Starr, the main character, is a black high school girl who witnesses firsthand the shooting of her friend Khalil as they are driving home from a party that had earlier turned violent. Starr wants to do the right thing by all involved, but what exactly is the right thing when your family’s safety is also very clearly at stake? Witnessing the media spin that seems to be making the event all about Khalil’s history and the reputation of her neighborhood as crime-ridden also leaves her conflicted as Starr’s white friends at school react the same as the author’s college friends did to the real life Oakland/ Grant shooting. Starr’s father Maverick was at one time “in the game” himself and did time in jail. Now he advocates fiercely the 1966 Black Panther Party ten point program of Black self-determination, and clashes with his wife about the need to remain in their neighborhood, instead of moving, in order to be a part of shepherding its betterment. He shares this outlook with Starr, but ultimately wants her to make her own decisions about how to proceed. Her white boyfriend at school, Chris, is frustrated with her inability to share her feelings about the shooting and the inevitable limits of his capacity to relate beyond his concern for Starr. It would have been easy to make Chris a cliche’, with his collection of Jordans and propensity for inventing new beats. But Thomas’ development of him makes it clear he genuinely wants to be there for Starr in whatever way he can without allowing Chris’ need to be helpful to steal focus from Starr or the shooting..

The media reports want to make her friend Khalil a one-and-done drug dealer. The book shows a boy who was part of Starr’s childhood Harry Potter fan club trio, whose loyalty to his addict mother knew no reasonable bounds, a boy who left the memory of Starr’s first kiss on her lips even many years and boyfriends later. Starr’s uncle Carlos, her mother’s brother, is a detective and personally knows the involved officer. Carlos’ battle with himself on how to protect his niece, how to stay true to his badge, how to keep Starr’s father from going where Carlos can’t, and how to represent the uniform with honor in the neighborhood after the occurrence is admittedly better developed in the movie than in the book. Carlos’ voice is the all-seeing Eye of Horus, complete with tear drop.

Finally, the movie itself delivered solid performances. Amandla Sternberg, in the role of Starr, absolutely nailed the vulnerability of a teen being forced to become bigger than herself when backed against the wall. I don’t know why I’m still always surprised to see Common come through after his role as an injured NBA player opposite Queen Latifah in the 2010 movie Just Wright. As Uncle Carlos, as in all his acting roles, he consistently proves himself to be more than a kitschy celebrity walk-on. Algee Smith plays Khalil just as the writer intended, as any guy you might know from around the way, making it impossible to simply dismiss him as some neighborhood ne’er-do-well who had it coming eventually. When the police officer’s shot came that killed him, I was still startled and jumpy. Smith made me so fond of his character that I didn’t want to believe what just happened even though I knew it was coming. In a testament to the movie’s ability to deliver its payload, I saw a woman walk out in tears after the shooting scene. I caught up with her later and found that she and her three friends were Buff State students from NYC who had all lost male family members to gun violence as recently as this past July. The movie reminded them, as writer Angie Thomas wants to remind us all, that this is hardly fiction happening somewhere else in some other time.

Dwayne and Helen, who own a store on Fillmore Ave. told me leaving the theater they were left with ultimately how important it is for young people to heed the advice of their elders when being stopped by police. “Starr’s father trained their kids to stay calm, don’t talk back, put your hands on the dashboard. You didn’t see that in Khalil,” said Dwayne. “Our young people need to heed that message because there’s no do-over. Once you make that mistake, you’re dead.” The most compelling line of the movie for me was delivered by community activist April Ofrah, played powerfully by actress Issa Rae, most known for her HBO series Insecure. “It is impossible to be unarmed when our blackness is the weapon they fear.”