Amandala Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae and Algee Smith, with KJ Apa, Sabrina Carpenter, Marcia Wright, Lonnie “Common” Lynn and Anthony Mackie.
Starr lives in a lower-income black neighborhood, but she attends a largely white prep school. Torn between two worlds she knows how to keep her balance, even if the center may not hold.
Then the tipping point hits home. Starr becomes a witness to her childhood friend shot to death by a white police officer. Starr now finds herself bound between those two worlds as she tries to do the right thing regardless of her upbringing, her neighborhood, her education…her family, who always taught her to follow her gut.
But thanks to the ensuing media circus surrounding the shooting Starr’s guts are totally wrenched.
Here’s a serious question, and if you gauge it even-minded you know I ain’t fooling: Ever been harassed by the cops?
I mean cops. Not police officers. I respect those guys. Follow the difference. Police officers try to maintain law and order (kinda like that TV franchise), serve the community at large and occasionally hunt down the bad guys at large, too. Growing up we got to know the local officers on a friendly basis. They would tool around on patrol in our neck of the woods—which was usually a quiet beat—and would chat up the neighbors. They were as threatening as our local mail carrier, and he carried pepper spray. Simply put, I never panicked when that prowler was cruising down my street. Why? I wasn’t doing anything wrong so those guys didn’t give a f*ck about me. I was too young to rob a bank. I was too young to have a bank account.
On the other hand cops are f*cking bullies. Throwing their weight around, looking down on civvies with their whining, thumbs always hitched on their gun belt, and usually—but not always—reflecting the stereotype that they are registered at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. The police don’t harass you; they wanna fix the situation quick and be out of your hair. There are crack dealers hovering around the high school. But cops…
Again I hate bullies. I mean I really f*cking hate bullies. Had to deal with many over the years. When the police see fit to hire these men-children who excelled at scoring illicit lunch money in high school and then give them access to firearms and souped-up squad cars with blinding spotlights that when they hit your face there is no way to not look under the influence of something. Makes one wonder: What did I do? It’s usually fear that wafts off your nervous face, even if you’re white. Or black. Or Martian.
Here’s a simple metric trending how one should and should not be considered as an officer of the law:
Q: “Why do you want to join the Force?”
Correct A: “I want to serve the community, uphold the law and keep the peace.”
Incorrect A: “I want a gun.”
Here’s a story. My kid has issues. Forget that, she has the lifetime subscription. Teenage anxiety disorder on Red Bull. She sometimes lashes out and gets impetuous for no real reason. On more than one occasion she had called the cops on me because she did not like how I disciplined her, like when I caught her hacking into my PayPal account. The outcome was no more PayPal and I reset my account. Never raised a hand. When the sh*t went down, either theft or hiding crappy grades, in her mind panic felt it proper to call on the local authorities to settle the matter. I grew to dislike being on a first name basis with the local colonial police officer as first responder and offering up coffee. Again.
The final time this circus act happened the familiar officer had a ride along. He was a rookie; the officer told me so. Told you I was on a casual basis with man. His newb was all hale and hearty and nervous and full of Boston Cremes. First night out according to the officer, very green. Over many months I got to know the officer. He was police, said little, by the book and f*cking tired of visiting my house for the same bullsh*t. Freshen your mug? Nah. The man probably felt like leaving to go sweat some actual perp.
His ride along could not but help follow the rulebook, and even the rulebook had creases. He demanded info, but wouldn’t let me speak. The officer warned me about his hungry attitude prior while we chatted and ignored coffee in the kitchen. Oh boy. The newb was pandering, condescending and husky. Nothing I did not say swayed his imperious conduct. My kid was sniffling in the next room and the cop sweated her, insisting she went to the hospital. He was 25, over 6 feet tall and could not keep his thumb off his sidearm. The kid was 10 and rubbing her eyes. You figure it out.
Needless to say the trip to the ER was brief. The consequences of her small potatoes crime had set in and she wanted to go back home. The cop was having none of it, and blamed me for putting her in the hospital. Did I mention the cop put the idea in her mind and drive her to the ER himself? In a prowler? I followed close behind. Once at the ER the officer just shrugged because the cop wasn’t technically out of line, but when my kid insisted on wanting to go back home and the cop would not let up. His superior had had enough. He was tired and frustrated to have to “follow the book.” The kid wants to go home. Not in our jurisdiction. Good night. We went home. In my car. No more Hello Kitty accessories anymore. Too bad, so sad.
There’s a funny coda to all that melodrama. My mom lives in a sorta subdivision, populated by old farm homes in a pocket neighborhood. There once was a bridge that connected the drive to the main street, and also a right-of-way leading out the back. The bridge was condemned, therefore there was now only one way in and out of the neighborhood. Only a single thoroughfare, which was admittedly inconvenient.
For a time there was a police car stationed near the intersection that led into the neighborhood. You see, the road was once used as a shortcut for people to get to the main road quicker, which was illegal because the right-of-way was to be used exclusively by emergency vehicles and the residents in the neighborhood. Lots of drivers sped like the all the demons in Hell were chasing them. My mother believes in the Golden Rule and is a very cautious driver. Me too because, you know, cops.
The cop pulled my mom over. She was not speeding. She followed the rules of the road. She did not have to hear the siren go whoop-whoop. My mom pulled over just shy of the right-of-way as the squad car creeped up behind. The cop squeezed his way out of his ride and started flipping that clip book stalking up to her car with all the drama of molasses dripping from a jar in January.
It was the same cop! The newbie. Mr Krispy Creme. He tried to cite my mom on trespassing. Again, there was that very obvious sign at the entry to the right of way saying it was not a through street, and only residents and emergency vehicles were permitted. It was clear as day on the sign. My mom mentioned to the cop that she recognized him (from his visit weeks earlier, natch) and he knew where she damned well lived.
“What? Do you want to read the address on my license?”
Face was lost, and my mom was free to go. She later called the colonial police to complain. What I just wrote was pretty much verbatim. Smelled like the rookie was trying to dole out tickets, not enforce what the sign said. Again cops are f*cking bullies, and there’s that thin blue line to consider.
What’s that you say? What blue line? I’ll tell ya. Back in the day that expression mean that the police were the first defense against crime and civil unrest. Fine. Nowadays the phrase is akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What happens in the precinct stays in the precinct. For a good examination of this philosophy check out Pacino’s turn in the biopic Serpico. Fifty years on the film still resonates and perhaps explain why cops—white cops in particular—are quick to put holes into non-whites. For a reference contact Daryl Gates. Moving on.
The history of our modern police force is a tricky one. The concept did not originate with the precept of upholding the law. No. Hate to break this to you, but in an early iteration police officers were assigned to capture and punish runaway slaves back in the bad old days of the Civil War. Upholding the “law” to be sure, but the motive was wrong and the end result was wrong, even by 21st Century standards. Or 20th. Or 18th. Legalized bullying.
It was antebellum South. During the Colonial days the proto-policemen were more of less just glorified night watchmen. Think mall security. In the South the Confederate cops were bounty hunters, paid to hunt down runaways. Key word: hunt. These “lawmen” were not driven to serve and protect. There were recently liberated n*ggers on the run and needed to be brought to “justice.” Some things never change according to the nightly news. Consider this and compare:
An old school North Carolina police badge (ca 1860s):
A modern police badge (no disrespect to Illinois PD):
How far we’ve come. Yeah, it’s just a shape. But so is a swastika. No, I’m not saying cops are Nazis. Of course not. However why wear your proverbial heart on your sleeve like above? If a modern badge represents law and order, then why do so many cops ignore that precept? Consider the matter of the Trayvon Martin’s murder or George Floyd’s been strangled to death. If you have been watching the news as of…forever, cops tend to panic and mow down black and brown people at an alarming rate. And nothing is done to correct it. Even Derek Chauvin—known to abuse his badge—got off lucky for killing Floyd (and he might definitely get shanked while in stir). But what about the multiple school shootings that have plagued this nation for over a decade? Most caught are white and go under analysis. These demons killed kids and as punishment they get hugs. If it was a black guy who aimed the rifle he would be hanged. Lynched.
There is a kind of precedent here. I was alive in the early 90s, and was witness to the Rodney King trial on the major news networks. For the uninformed, King was driving drunk on LA’s I-210. The cops pulled him over, dragged him out of his car and proceeded to beat the pulp out him. All four of them. And they walked, despite the whole tragedy being caught on video. It was understood that King was mixed up with drug dealing, and so was Floyd. Did they need to be beaten and killed for it? No duh. Then was the undoing for the notorious “command presence” of the LAPD, and the bigoted chief of police Daryl Gates threw up his hands in frustration and let the n*ggers run riot, which is what they did. Again, no duh. The biggest, nastiest mob mentality since the Watts riots in the 60s. All because the bullies—the cops—got off with a slap on the wrist. If that.
A final scenario for you who have yet to discern the difference between police officers and cops. Say you got pulled over for speeding, and all too common moving violation. I don’t know about you, but whenever I pulled over all the nasty, though irrelevant, misdeeds run through my mind. What else could I be stung with? That’s nuts, but you may have committed a crime and the officer has your driving record as well as a sidearm. More times than not you sweat.
When the officer strolls up to your overtaxed car there are two scenarios that could go down. One conducted by the police and one from a cop. One never happens but should as the law looms at your drivers’ side door. Read:
“Hello. I pulled you over because I clocked you at going 80 in a 50 mile an hour zone.” Then comes some panicky haggling from the motorist. “I hear you. May I see your license and registration, please? Thanks.”
That would be in a perfect and just world. Here’s the common reality:
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
Kinda passive aggressive right? Like there’s no correct answer, especially at the end of the month. Do not talk, do not argue and be slow opening that glovebox, all the while a thumb on the weapon. F*cking cops. This sh*t is an everyday thing for folks, getting pulled over and automatically struck with fear. You know why you got pulled over, but what if this scary cop has access to all the naughty things you’ve got away with thus far? Boosting CDs from the local Best Buy. Dine and dash. Cheating on your significant other. But that’s neither here nor now, just a speeding ticket. Maybe later on the nod and plow into a church group. Somehow scoring a street legal assault rifle means to ventilate a bunch of kids. Or demolish the Oklahoma Federal Building on a lark. Forget all that. For now you got off lucky; just a speeding ticket.
But what if you were black? And with that star shining—glaring—at you…?
Garden Heights is not the place to live. Unless you grew up there like Starr (Stenberg) has, from her formative years to now.
Place has unfairly gotten a bad rap, even by her parents’ standards. Starr’s mom Lisa (Hall) insisted she gets the finest education possible. This means enrollment at Williamson Prep, the best private school in town. Or rather across town, across the tracks and Starr is their only black student. She’s stuck between worlds.
The Heights is where Starr can be herself. Everyone is a neighbor and the neighborhood’s flaws make it family. A dysfunctional family, mind you. Such a reminder comes to Starr when she goes to a local house party and runs into her old bestie, Khalil (Smith), fellow Harry Potter fan and one-time crush. When gunshots ring out she and Khalil make a break for it, driving away as if all the demons from Hell were chasing them.
Bad move. Chasing all right. The high speed escape catches the notice of a local black & white, with an emphasis on the white part. The two are pulled over, and well…
Khalil’s funeral causes a media circus. With Starr as the key witness in Khalil’s murder she’s forced to chose sides. Garden Heights or Williamson?
I often thought that 2Pac was a misunderstood artist. Like he was more what his fans thought rather than who he was. His brash, outspoken image tempered with intellectual leanings entranced and confused rap fans of all stripes. I found his lyrics to be very literate, which was not the flavor in Columbus. But he sold, and was the second hip-hop performer to reign with a white fanbase as well as secured in black culture. Before that? Run-DMC. I may be a fossil, and this may be lame street cred, but I do enjoy some solid hip-hop to this day that no doubt influenced Shakur. I was a still a pup back in the 80s when rap became a legit music genre. I grew up with Run and crew, Kurtis Blow, GrandMaster Flash, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Public Enemy and all those folks. In the 90s there was Gang Starr, Tribe, Dre, Biggie, Coolio and 2Pac, natch. Cut me some slack, I was a white kid from the suburbs. Daily Operation is still the best East Coast album from the early 90s. DJ Premier utilized jazz samples exclusively, so there. I am a hip-hop nerd.
See you in the comments section.
What led to Tupac’s undoing I feel that despite how smart, cagey and literate he was—both in art and attitude—he eventually began to believe his own press. It became Thug Life rather than THUGLIFE, and some fabricated media stunt about a rivalry between Biggie from the East Coast and Shakur from the West. That sham was perpetrated from the boys in the basement to up record sales. I blame the true thug Suge Knight behind the artifice, and he only got jail time, again, for his back alley scheming. To quote Chris Rock: “Biggie wasn’t assassinated. Tupac wasn’t assassinated. Those n*ggas got shot.” Dead as doornails, which was then most folks caught on the the chicanery. I mean why would Shakur hang out with gangstas? Such an image betrayed his whole muse. Nobody is weak to their own fame, no matter what happens. It’s a shame he had to be shot and killed because of that. Being used for being brash.
However being brash back in the day was essential to the nascent hip-hop scene; gotta get noticed somehow in this vanilla, dollar burning economy. A rap artist who told it like is as well as the Last Poets did back in the 70’s, however in the 90’s is was novelty. Social commentary was always inherent in rap, but it wasn’t until Tupac that the fusion of street poetry with actual poetry in the rhymes became legit. Sure, other artists were slamming their fists against the white establishment, but the likes of NWA, Public Enemy or even Arrested Development were far less subtle in delivering the word. Those artists were more akin to Gil Scott-Heron than Langston Hughes.
Like Tupac’s rhymes THUG delivers the word in a uniquely literate manner. It wasn’t just because the plot was adapted from Angie Thomas’ award-winning novel of the same name, but the cinematic version flows like reading a novel. And I never read it. To be sure (beyond this installment) the book garnered a lot of attention. More than one would expect from a YA novel. And true to form: you wanna to get a book read? Ban it. No cap. Tell everyone. Even better? Adapt it to streaming or cinema. Thomas’ novel earned many accolades across the board, and within the context of film it shows.
No surprise THUG is a character drama, and we have quite a few characters at work. I was duly impressed with Stenberg as Starr. She carried herself very well and very pro. Really well. I was not aware she started her career in earnest with The Hunger Games franchise. I’m not terribly familiar with the series, books or otherwise. What I do know about Suzanne Collins’ dystopian flavor on YA novels is that the cast is vast and wide, both in print and on screen. If the Carnegie Medal, Coretta Scott King Book Award and Edgar Award doesn’t justify the The Hate U Give‘s publication, then I don’t know what more could coax Hollywood to commit print to screen. Makes me wanna actually read the dang thing.
Anyway, back to that whole character drama thing. Yes, Stenberg shined, but the juxtaposition she was cast in reminded me of the rampant woke community. I mean, duh. Y’all just figured out people of color have been marginalized for centuries? Now you want to take up the flag cuz you just figured out (minus including those who were ostensibly outcasts in our society? Shoosh). I saw Starr as passing in reverse, and doing so as casually as she could. Consider Tiger Woods back in the day. Or even Obama. “Passing” was a risky thing hundreds of years back, as well as rather odious. The term stems from when a black person had a fair enough complexion to “pass” for white, and entitled to all the luxuries/opportunities that came into view. Stenberg’s Starr didn’t pass in the traditional sense. She was well aware of her standing at Williamson, and minded her grades and her trade. Her classmates regarded her as a novelty, waiting for her to go full ghetto. All in woken fun you see? Hell, even the lighting goes from shrill as school to warm back home. Subtle, but demanding.
Despite the narration, Starr stood staunchly between two worlds. Stenberg was confident without being uppity. Thoughtful of her place within and without school, and even Garden Heights. She was always quick on her heels to say what needed to be said at a given moment. She must’ve felt personally responsible as to what tragically happened to Khalil, her once best bud. Stenberg was passing in reverse, did a good job, and that was a shame since such crap happens all the time to what the woke crowd would deem degrading. Starr was perceived as an “Oreo” and her shrinking violet schtick was just an act. Passing.
But THUG also presented—if not demanded—a sharp supporting cast. It was a rogue’s gallery of sorts. It’s always lurking in the periphery for a character drama. What was great about this time out is that the traditional stereotypes were blurred for our story. Despite what I made a stink about above there is social relevance here. Again, duh, but not cookie cutter. Starr’s story of self-reliance and integrity was ably fleshed out by a really smart and sometimes subtle supporting cast. Smart as in shrewd. The supporting cast were smartly chosen as to illustrate the usual archetypes of growing up black in a downtrodden neighborhood without being mawkish.
Ex-con Mav tries hard to be a good dad, and he is. Paid his dues and is now a pillar of the community. Lisa is a caring and dedicated mom and wife. Lost, learned, loved and keeps on loving knowing full well every good moment is transient and what she could’ve lost again every day. Khalil was not the star anything (and may have gotten into some bad business), except be a good Joe who still cared for his childhood friend, Starr. Not a lot of “Good Joes” in movies like this; closest I can recall is Ricky from Boyz N The Hood, and even he was kinda smarmy. All points covered in what could’ve been a moribund take on life in the ghetto. Even if there was no ghetto. Garden Heights was tableau as a black Mayberry; this is how we are. It could be anywhere, which is why it resonated so well. This sh*t could happen to you. All of us.
Hold on for a bit for another thing, but later. We’ve read a lot of other things here, but later is for a bit later. Hold on and anyway.
I must get to the diamond in the rough, Anthony Mackie. He’s become one of my favorite and reliable character actors. He slides into any role either as a warm hero or an icy villain with equal aplomb. Sure, most MCU fans recognize him as the erstwhile social worker cum Avenger Sam Wilson (AKA: The Falcon), streetwise, driven and palling with Captain America (he was also the first black superhero to get his own ongoing comic book series. No cap and no Cap). His Mr Hyde roles are best illustrated here as well as his role in Half-Nelson, a warm thug with a heart of coal. Conniving, dangerous and is convinced the world owes him many favors. Despite how sinister his gang lord King is here he’s still relatable. We all know a schemer in our lives, but never one who’d be sympathetic to. In sum, Mackie was a badass antagonist, always quietly stirring the pot. Slick.
Overall, THUG hit like a play. I know it was based on a book, but that is not the same as a play. For those million years in high school English once you’ve read enough Shakespeare once you see it live there’s no turning back. THUG was staged with very choice breaks to let the drama leap into the next act, like Garden Heights against the world of Williamson and back again to Starr’s boisterous home. Pacing was smooth and crucial to how this drama-of-errors played out, and we know how I take to pacing. In fact, despite the rough story THUG was a very smooth, cool, thoughtful film. Made you think, but not upside the head with some brickbat.
Hey, wait a moment. There’s that other thing though, but later. We’ve read a lot of other things here, but later is for a bit later. Hold on. It’s not what you call me—
Like Top Gun: Maverick a lot could have—should have—gone ridiculously wrong. Perhaps a PG-13 version of Menace To Society starring a sepia-toned female with no access to being strapped. Not here. THUG was a coming of age story (a label I hate), but the whole mess of high school antagonism paired against police…cop brutality fares far from the suburbs. There’s familiarity at work. Unless you’ve been up on the news, and most of those victims were white aimed at by another disenfranchised white boy. It’s all enough to be both a learning experience and a better reason to call in sick and hide in your closet. THUG had this omnipresent feel of being sheltered. Despite the film’s “open world” execution through Starr, we as the audience understood the need of a dashboard. We should also cringe, but not out of social status. We acknowledge the pudge and the belt. And deaf ears.
Finally and thanks for holding on. Being addressed as African-American is still a label. It’s not what you call me, but what I answer to. Like Chris Rock exclaimed, “Run! The media is there!” Black Americans are black; most have long since settled for that moniker despite a very large contingency did not come from Africa and emigrated from the Caribbean to America in search of a better job. A good chunk of our darkies never knew Africa. Despite what the safe newscasters use as African-American. Ignoring a very large, black community that are now dubbed African-American by the PC white media figures. Such a pandering, blah label to address at least 1/4 of the US (who in the past built the f*cking US) is insulting. Kinda like how Starr had to balance both sides. I do not know a single black person who uses that epithet. A old co-worker friend of mine told me his folks hailed from the Dominican Republic, and he was just him. Labels are just labels, and don’t define you. Neither do badges.
To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut for the woke crowd: “All your protests are nothing but banana cream pies.”
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. For once we have a movie like this that isn’t preachy. My breakdown was more preachy, and not nearly as well-staged. A very smart film.
- “Neither version of me.”
- K: Was that a gun? Yes. Yes it was 🙁
- “We know this is hard right now.” “Do you?”
- K: Trauma. It’s one of the worst words.
- “I didn’t name you Starr for nothing.”
- All those mixed looks at the funeral reception. It was a tad on the nose.
- K: You can’t blame yourself for what you can’t control. Word.
- “Being black is an honor.” Being white is trite.
- What was all about the shoes? Was it about walk a mile in mine?
- The white hoodie.
- I can’t breathe. A full year before.
- “Where you live doesn’t define who you are.”
The Next Time…
Wow. Jim Carrey must’ve been really vying for The Majestic Academy Award for acting in this role. Let’s let him show us something, please?