As the film “The Hate U Give” takes audiences by storm in movie theaters across the country, viewers discover a jarringly real-world take on the typical coming of age story often explored by feature films. A phenomenon in its own right, the film ties itself to a greater movement against the institutionalized oppression and brutality that the black community faces in real-world contexts, and gives a megaphone to the rising voices of this generation who have had battled their way to the forefront of it. In an interview with VOX ATL, director George Tillman Jr and author Angie Thomas divulge the various complexities, details, and processes that went into making “The Hate U Give” such a magnificent force of cinematic social commentary.
VOX ATL: What led you to want to work on this project?
Angie Thomas: I got the idea for the story when I was in college. For me it was a way to express a lot of anger, frustration, and hurt that I felt, but also the underlying hope that I felt. So I wrote this story first for myself and then I wrote it for kids in my neighborhood, like the boys who would say, “Well, when they called Trayvon Martin a thug, they’re calling me a thug.” Or for the girls who are like Starr who lived in two different worlds, and sometimes felt like they either were too much or not enough. So I wanted them to be able to see themselves. So for me, that was the main reason for doing the story.
VOX ATL: And why does this story have such a critical need to be told, especially in the correct context and climate of America’s society?
George Tillman Jr.: It’s two things. Race is at an all-time high right now. The country is just as divided as it always has been. My parents grew up during the sixties and the [Martin Luther King, Jr. civil rights era] and you got the Black Panthers. All these years later, Angie put the Black Panther 10 step program in the book and it’s in the movie. How do we move forward? How we keep pushing? How do we have better relationships with one another? This was a story that really talked about all of these things and it gave us a clue to how we can heal it, how we can get better. But more importantly, it actually helped you to look at yourself and say, “How do I change or become a better person?” That’s what Starr’s journey is. It was very relevant for that from a social standpoint, from a cinematic standpoint. I think we need more stories for us as African-Americans because stories about us can always crossover universally. It deals with family, it deals with human beings. You know, we have identity issues. Hollywood needs more stories to deal with these complexities.
VOX ATL: “The Hate U Give” has an amazing, unapologetic black story. Was there was any doubt when either you were writing the story, or when you were producing it to film, that the media wouldn’t give you a chance to tell these stories?
Thomas: Oh yeah. I had a lot of doubt when I was first writing it. I didn’t think it would honestly get published. I didn’t think it was something that was gonna find its way into young adult books. I’m a huge YA fan, but the fact is like when I was a teenager, the two big books were “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” I have nothing against them, but I couldn’t connect with either of them. You know, my mom wouldn’t let me date a 400-year-old vampire — she would have volunteered as a tribute and I wouldn’t have done it. So I couldn’t connect with a lot of books and I didn’t see a lot of books about black girls or about black girls dealing with things like this. So I was hesitant at first to try to get it published. But I ended up finding my literary agent because I was scared. I asked on Twitter if it was an appropriate topic for a novel, and he responded, “Yeah, I’d love to read it.” That was the first time that my own fears and doubts were put to rest. And over the course of things, publishers have realized they don’t have enough books about black kids, or about black girls especially. As they’ve realized this, I’m starting to see how not only my story but other stories are being welcomed more and being published more. I did have the fear and the doubt, but it’s slowly being put to rest. So my hope is that in five years, if someone else is writing a story about a black girl, they’ll see what happened with “The Hate U Give” and be like, “I can do it. I’m not afraid of it not getting published.”
VOX ATL: The turn around for this movie was fast. The book came out like last year and now here’s the film. Was there an urgency to get this story out into the media and to tell this story?
Tillman Jr.: It was. We were rushing because the book was like number one right away. We were just everyday with the writers, “Where’s the script, where’s the script, where’s the script?” And then the script would come and then the studio would have some notes. [And we’re] like, “But you told us to go fast,” and then we have to do notes again. But it was one of those rare moments in Hollywood that you actually took a script and it was shooting in almost a year. “Soul Food” took me two years, “Barbershop,” two and a half years, “Men of Honor” took like 10 years. It takes a long time. The reason why it takes a long time is because a lot of people have something to say, a lot of people have opinions. This is one of those books where it was specifically about us, so they allowed us to do what we wanted to do in terms of African-Americans in the culture. So there wasn’t that many notes they could give because a lot of people didn’t really know too much about the Tupac philosophy, didn’t really know about how gangs and that relationship works within the community, or the relationship between the police force and the community. So a lot of those things, they would say things and I would just say, well this is how it really is. They’ll be like, “Oh, OK.” So, I went fast, but that’s because we had a need to go quick and get it out.
VOX ATL: Starr’s character, the power that she has, her voice has as a young black girl who is kind of torn between two worlds is very significant. What’s the significance of her coming of age being linked to tragedy, what that is and what you intended it to be, as well as what it has become.
Thomas: The unfortunate thing is that so often either black kids are seen as being older than they are or they’re forced to grow up sooner than they should. And that’s something I wanted to address with this story through Starr. We see a young lady who was forced into really finding her voice and forced into womanhood in some ways because of tragedy, and that goes back to “thug life” and a lot of ways. The hate that’s given to her affects her entire world, changes her life and it forces her to grow up. So when we’re thinking about that, when we’re thinking about girls who really are like Starr, what are we doing as a society to make sure that they don’t have to grow up so fast, that they don’t have to go through these tragedies, that they don’t have to become women or act older than they really are in situations like this. What can we do to stop that from happening? One of the greatest ways to do that is to tell stories. For me as an author, if I can tell stories and show people what is happening with black girls, maybe we can start preventing these things from happening. I think about it, the kids right now are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. They’re going to be politicians with Twitter accounts. What am I putting into them now for when they become leaders, when they become president? What are they going to do to change things, so that the next generation of Starrs don’t have to grow up too fast? It all plays hand-in-hand, but it’s unfortunate because I remember it was tragedy that forced me to grow up as a kid. It was a tragedy that made me realize that the world wasn’t always a safe place for someone like me. I hope we can get to the point where these stories affect things in such a way that that’s no longer the case.
VOX ATL: What would you like to say to all the young black women like Starr out there who don’t believe that their voices matter right now in terms of social justice?
Thomas: Look at history, and remember this: every single black woman who changed history made somebody uncomfortable when she did. So don’t be afraid to make people uncomfortable. Two, look at those women and recognize the strength they have, you also have. And three, also know that yeah, it feels like sometimes as like young black woman, nobody’s listening to you. It feels as if everybody’s louder than you, but you sometimes you catch the most crap. There’s no other way of putting it. But the black girl magic is real. And that black girl magic creates queens. Hold onto that magic and know that you are a queen and know that we need your voice. I look at how young black girls especially are taking to this story and what it is doing in them, and I’m honored to know that they’re realizing their voices matter. But I also hope that it also makes other people realize just how valuable they are.
VOX ATL: How intentional was the choice of picking West View as the neighborhood of Garden Heights, because I live in West View and it’s actually very similar to Garden Heights in the movie. It would be the equivalent of people telling me like, “Oh, you live in the hood, you live in a bad area of town.” Was that intentional?
Tillman Jr.: I mean, yeah. When I first got in town, they were showing me different homes and different houses and I just wasn’t feeling the right place. And then we were driving down the street and I saw this one house. There was this family, this mom and her two daughters, and her husband or boyfriend at the time, and they were just sitting on a porch. I loved the spirit. The next door neighbor, they had like four or five family members outside, and there were people on the sidewalk, and it just felt like the neighborhood, the love that I felt, the energy. So I told the driver to stop and we just got out, and I asked the mom if their daughters had read “The Hate U Give,” and they did. One of the daughters knew about the book. And that’s how we started. So the neighborhood was picked by instinct, it was by emotion. It was one of the first films where I felt like “I’m not going to be intellectual, I’m just going to be very instinctive.” So the neighborhood had kind of made me feel that way.
VOX ATL: Angie, what was it like being on set seeing what you wrote come to life as a movie?
Thomas: Being on set was surreal. My first day there, I was in my car getting ready to get to the set and I could hear they were filming Khalil’s funeral. And if you’ve read the book, you know that there’s protests. So as we’re approaching the area, I’m hearing these loud voices, like a chant of some sort, and I let my windows down, and I hear hundreds of extras saying “Justice for Khalil!” And it was the most surreal moment of my life. I had to pull over to the side of the road and collect myself. But then when I got there, and I saw all of these people, and I saw the sign on the church with the name that I came up with, and all of these people who are out here filming this scene and putting their all into it, I was humbled. It is one of the most humbling things when you know that people are willing to take their time and their efforts and their talents and put it into creating something that you first imagined. I watched the movie several times now and it still doesn’t feel real.
VOX ATL: What influenced your casting choices, because it is such an important representative role.
Tillman Jr.: Amandla was always the first and only choice for the Starr. I just love Algae and his audition when he came in to play Khalil. I loved him in the New Edition movie and I just felt like he was the perfect person for that role. But all those were carefully thought about. I really did sit to make sure it was the right people. The [casting choices] that were very quick were like Regina Hall. I always wanted Regina Hall to play the mom when I got the book, because I just know that she can do comedy humor and really capture that spirit of mother that they really wanted. But it was just about, talking to everyone. I would just shoot names over to Angie to see how she felt about it. The hardest part to cast was Chris but we ended up with the best guy ever, KJ Apa, to play that role. But everything else came together really great.
VOX ATL: George, you’ve worked in a lot of projects ranging from “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” and “Faster.” How was working on this film different than the previous projects you’ve worked on?
Tillman Jr.: It was definitely different because it was a very sensitive subject matter in terms of police brutality and there’s a lot of people who have experienced that, and I wanted to honor that, but also be a vessel for those who are not there with us. And it became true when I had to get the rights to the pictures of it to Emmett Till and Sandra Bland. I’m calling their families, reaching out and you realize that you are just one person removed from someone who dealt with that, so it becomes very serious, and all you can do as a filmmaker is just work as hard as you can, and try to really make it as honest and truthful as possible. So it became the most important film that I did.
VOX ATL: What do you want the youth and the young people that have these experiences or live in the communities that we’re talking about this film and in this book to walk away knowing and feeling?
Thomas: One thing I hope they walk away knowing and feeling is that they are enough, they’re not too much. So often, specifically with black kids from neighborhoods like Garden Heights, the world makes them feel like they’re too much when they enter into different spaces. But they’re not, they’re enough, they’re fine as they are. I also hope that more people understand there’s no such thing as “talking white.” You’re just talking or you’re not talking. There’s no such thing. I hope that they walk away understanding that their stories matter. That was a big thing for me with writing the book, making sure that these young people knew that yes, you can be a superhero of your own story. It’s funny because a review was just calling it the best superhero movie of the year. And I’m like, in some ways, this is a black girl superhero movie. I’m so happy that we’re getting that through this, and I hope we get more of that. I hope they walk away knowing hey are the heroes of their own stories and that they have voices and that their voices matter, their dreams matter and their lives matter.