It’s rare for a first-time author to hit the New York Times best-seller list and have her book made into a movie; it’s even more rare when the author is a Black woman. Angie Thomas has that honor with her best-selling novel The Hate U Give living on as a feature film just a little over a year after the book’s publication. Directed by George Tillman Jr. and starring Amandla Stenberg as high school student-turned-activist Starr Carter, The Hate U Give focuses on the personal effects of police brutality and racism on a community, but it also shows how individuals can be empowered to enact change.
After the film’s acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Shadow & Act caught up with Thomas to talk about the process of turning a book into a film and when she knew Stenberg would be perfect for the role.
S&A: What was it like being at the TIFF premiere and hearing the critical reception?
AT: That was awesome. I think it’s probably going to be one of things I’ll never forget, sitting there in the theater with all of those people and hearing their reactions to certain things. When I saw the movie before that, it was with people who had a vested interest in it. Like, with my agent or my editor or my publishing house people. But it was something to see it with people who weren’t part of the process in any way.
It was awesome to hear their authentic reactions. I loved to hear the reaction after that, and all the great reviews that came from it. This was my first time at TIFF–I wasn’t really familiar with TIFF before this. But knowing that that many people came out and they connected with it really did something for me. It’s one of those things I won’t forget.
S&A: How have you felt about the praise Amandla Stenberg and Russell Hornsby have received for their roles?
AT: I’m so happy to see them both getting so much praise for their roles. For me, I’ve been blown away from seeing them both as the characters. For so many people, Amandla’s still Rue from The Hunger Games. But I hope this movie helps people see Amandla, not Rue. I hope that it makes her a household name. Same for Russell; Russell’s been doing incredible work for decades now. If this movie can get him the recognition that he deserves, I’m honored that it did that. They both put so much into their characters and they gave their heart and soul to these roles and it shows. I’m so happy for them and I can’t wait to see where it takes them.
S&A: What was the book-to-film process like?
AT: The process took almost a year for that to happen. Throughout the process, I was in touch with the screenwriters the entire time. They kept me involved and George [Tilman Jr, the director] as well. I was very involved. I had a couple of sit-down conversations with the screenwriters. I went out to Los Angeles even, and had sit-down conversations. I would sometimes get emails or calls out of the blue, but it just goes to show just how much my opinions were respected.
George kept me in the process from the beginning. He wanted me to tell him about every single character, so we had discussions about every character, what their motivations were. Even while they were filming, I was there on set for several weeks and George still took my opinions into consideration. It was a very collaborative process from the beginning.
S&A: You’ve talked in other interviews about how you’ve felt Stenberg was right for the role of Starr. What exactly made her the perfect vessel for your character?
AT: For me, it was when I first saw her “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” video, where she addressed cultural appropriation. I remember watching that and was blown away that someone so young was so wise and so intelligent. She brought so much clarity to the issue that I was like that’s exactly who I want Starr to be. She did it boldly and she did it bravely. There were people who attacked her for that video and she didn’t back down. That strength and that bravery is exactly what I wanted Starr to have.
I remember seeing that and thinking that even though she was technically, at the time, younger than the character, I wanted Starr to grow up to be her. I wanted her to one day make those types of videos and ruffle those feathers. For me, from that point on, she’s Starr. When she read the book and loved it and wanted to do it, I was definitely on board because so much of what she represents is what I want Starr to represent.
S&A: You had a cameo during the highly-emotional protest scene. What was it like filming that scene?
AT: That was awesome. Filming the cameo was a lot of fun. I had witnessed for weeks how long it takes to do one scene…but being a part of it, I got a good idea of what it’s like to, having to wait around for a set-up and all of that. It was my little taste of what it’s like to be an actor.
But I have to say, for me it was incredible because the film involves so many extras, hundreds of extras. Seeing how dedicated they were—because it was a cold and rainy night in Atlanta—and they just kept sticking it out and getting it right. It did my heart so much good and it was so humbling to know that people believed in something that started with me so much that they were willing to stick it out in the cold and the rain. My cameo and the symbolism of my cameo felt perfect…it felt fitting. Every time I see it, I tear up because in some ways, it’s because what I as a writer did by giving Starr her voice.
S&A: Where do you see The Hate U Give fitting into today’s political times and various movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter?
AT: My biggest hope for the story is that it makes the political personal…At the end of the day, we’re talking about people, we’re talking about humanity, we’re talking about individuals. When we say Black Lives Matter, we’re literally saying this person’s life matters. Even when it’s made into a political issue, I hope that The Hate U Give addresses that [these issues] are a personal, people thing. Why are people so angry and frustrated and hurt that they would protest and even riot? Because they took something personal. I hope that we can start taking things more personally and take politics more personally because once we do, we can actually use our anger and frustration and hopefully do something productive to make actual change.
S&A: How do you think this film could change audiences’ perceptions of social issues?
AT: I hope that people walk away from the film realizing they could be Starr. They could be Khalil. Or someone they love could be Khalil or Starr. I hope they walk away realizing that. And even if they don’t see themselves as Starr, even white people who…can go back to their life of privilege and they don’t have to worry about these things, I hope that they will learn that they have the power to change the things that are happening around them. I hope that people realize that.
I hope that people realize that this [police brutality] is an actual issue that has been going on for decades. It’s systemic and we have to address it. I hope they walk away realizing there’s a reason why Colin [Kaepernick] took a knee. There’s a reason why these guys are taking a knee. There’s a reason why we say, “Black Lives Matter,” because our lives are so often treated as if they are disposable. My biggest hope is that people walk away from this realizing why we say, “Black Lives Matter,” and that they walk away feeling like they need to change things. I hope they walk away feeling empowered.