On October 3, Wesley Morris, in a piece for the New York Times Magazine titled “The Morality Wars,” sounded the alarm (in a nutshell) about the difficulty in critiquing black art in today’s political climate in favor of protecting the culture.
Basically, he said that because the stakes are higher for black art, it has become somewhat taboo to speak negatively about art that might not be that great but occupies some necessary space in the black community. As an example, he used the Issa Rae vehicle Insecure, discussing how a critique of the show ended up causing others at a dinner party with him to discuss who has the license to assess certain art. It’s a long article, but the main point can be summed up, to me, in this paragraph:
The real-world and social-media combat we’ve been in for the past two years over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and bemoan (or endorse!) how it’s being run — have now shown up in our beefs over culture, not so much over the actual works themselves but over the laws governing that culture and the discussion around it, which artists can make what art, who can speak. We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.
Morris was criticized in various corners for his article, including here at Very Smart Brothas. Part of the issue with his piece was the example of Insecure, a show that has been soundly criticized in both the social media world and in written articles by black men and women alike. Many weekly recaps of the show at Vulture, The Grio and even here at VSB have lamented nearly every aspect of the show that could be even remotely deemed questionable. Basically, Morris’ article was off because of how he got to this conclusion.
Turns out, had he waited a few weeks for the release of the highly anticipated movie, The Hate U Give, he might have had a case. Why do I say this? Well, because the very next sentence you will read took me weeks to write.
The Hate U Give was not a good or even important movie like we hoped or wanted it to be.
It’s not straight basura, simply on the strength of performances from Amandla Stenberg (somewhat controversially) as Starr and Russell Hornsby as Maverick Carter, but the adaptation from the Angie Thomas book of the same name was nowhere near as good as the press run-up to its release implied it would be nor as good as the tears I saw shed at a panel discussion about the film at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival back in August.
I read the entire 400-plus page book in a day thanks to several delayed flights, and one entirely new airplane creating the world’s longest flight from Washington, D.C., to Birmingham, Ala., for a wedding. I wanted to read it before seeing the movie because the interviews with the cast and the director all seemed to imply that this movie was going to be jarring, compelling and moving in a way that we may not be ready for. Because the book falls squarely in the Black Lives Matter canon and couldn’t be more timely, it had a lot of promise. Many of us can relate to an entire life of code-switching and how that brings you front and center with white supremacy and your own community at the same time and the struggles that presents when a life-changing event with the police occurs.
But where the book is able to go because words allow more nuance, almost every character or interaction in the movie is stereotypical. The movie feels more trope-ish than it needed to be, from the presentation of gang-infested Garden Heights (where Starr lives) to the private school she attends. Not to say that none of it is true or relevant, but I’d like to think we’ve moved past the paint-by-numbers differences illustrated by the movie. What mostly drew my ire were the changes, unnecessarily, made between the book and the movie.
For instance, the biggest, most glaring and frustrating change was the incident at the very heart of the story. In the movie, Khalil, Starr’s friend who is killed by a police officer, reaches into the car to grab a brush, pulls it out and is shot by the cop as he attempts to brush his head. Clearly, he needn’t have been shot by the police officer and it becomes another case of an unarmed black kid killed by the police.
But in the book, he makes no such move. What he does do is open the car door to ask Starr how she’s doing when he’s shot in the back, with the brush in the car door and the police officer claiming he thought he saw a gun. In the movie, it’s almost conceivable to see how a police officer could see something in his hand in the dark and make what ends up being a stupid, fatal mistake. That scene changes the entire narrative. In the book, it’s clear that police fired without cause. In the movie, the benefit of the doubt for the officer that gets the officer cleared of charges almost seems like a “well, duh” foregone conclusion considering what we saw onscreen. There’s zero chance for this to work out favorably for the community.
There are several other parts of the movie where I feel like they dropped the ball on utilizing the characters to truly make a point about race relations or the complex lives of black people in “the hood.” For instance, Starr’s friend from Williamson (her private school), Hailee, is so much more of a racist in the book than she is in the movie, their tension so much more pronounced and frustrating, highlighting the inherent racism that probably exists when we’re not in the room, even in spaces where folks pretend they’re happy to share with us.
Even Common, who plays Starr’s Uncle Carlos is turned into a stereotypical black cop in the movie, though in the book, his character is a much more nuanced, down-for-the-cause presence in Starr’s life. In the movie, Uncle Carlos is a profiling, standard-issue cop. In the book, Uncle Carlos is trying to keep a kid he would normally profile off the streets in his own home, while trying to help Starr and her father—who seems like his anti-thesis as the Black Power, Black Jesus devotee—get justice and peace.
For those, plus other reasons, as a movie, The Hate U Give never reaches the level to be powerful or compelling. There were jarring moments, especially those involving youngest son, Sekani, including one that, while emotionally compelling, was also manipulated to be emotionally compelling.
And yet, despite what I believe are reasonable critiques, I felt like, because of the film’s content, I might not need to share them for the very reason Morris outlined in his article. I didn’t want to be a person who was poo-pooing black art that was meant to drive home a point or a purpose. And I’m not alone. I had a conversation with a very prominent activist, whom we all know, who felt they couldn’t speak on it for the same reason. Nobody wants to be the one to say black art doesn’t do the culture good, especially when we don’t get as many opportunities on that scale to tell our stories in this medium.
But it also feels disingenuous to intentionally not discuss something that explicitly intends to tell our stories and more or less, stereotypically falls into tropism to do so. I may be in the minority, but conversations I’ve had with various people seem to be fairly mixed, though a lot more didn’t love it than I assumed because of its content.
Critique is a natural part of art creation. But I did feel more cautious and slower to get around to discussing the movie because of the very tension Morris speaks to in his article. The Have U Give feels more...important? But beyond reasonable critique? I mean, it’s still a movie, right? That’s my struggle.
I think Morris was right or at least isn’t wrong. He just used the wrong vehicle to make his point.