A “Starr” is truly born in “The Hate U Give,” George Tillman Jr.’s riveting screen adaptation of Angie Thomas’ bestselling book, which was published only last year. Amandla Stenberg turns in one of the year’s very best performances as Starr, a teenager straddling two very different worlds exemplified by her impoverished black neighborhood and the affluent, predominantly white prep school she attends. After her longtime friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) is shot to death by a police officer—a senseless death Thomas initially based on the real-life murder of Oscar Grant III in 2009—Starr finds the courage to speak her truth, attracting the attention of the media as well as a notorious gang leader (Anthony Mackie). Stenberg sublimely portrays the mounting outrage brewing within her character, as she awakens to the strength of her spirit amidst profound adversity.
When I spoke with Stenberg on the red carpet of the Chicago International Film Festival last Thursday, prior to the film’s Windy City premiere, I recalled an amusing online sketch she performed with Kiernan Shipka where they each poked fun at their unconventional names. Upon researching the meaning of “Amandla,” I discovered its roots in the Nguni culture, and decided to ask Stenberg what significance the name has had for her.
“It’s meant a lot to me,” she said. “My mom gave me that name very intentionally. It means ‘power’ in Zulu and Xhosa, and it was also an anti-apartheid rallying cry. ‘Amandla Ngawethu’ means ‘power to the people.’ Miles Davis named one of his albums ‘Amandla,’ and my mom named me after the album as well as the meaning of the cry. In some ways, it’s kind of a prophecy that has been granted to me by my mom. She gave me an intention with my name, which was to always stand in my power and not be afraid of it, and to always remember my roots and my ancestors.”
Joining Stenberg on the carpet was Tillman Jr., who has found great success serving as producer of the “Barbershop” franchise as well as Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” a film that sorely deserved to be a Best Picture contender. When I voiced my hope that Stenberg will receive an Oscar nomination for his film, he couldn’t help agreeing.
“Amandla is amazing in the film,” said Tillman Jr. “She really worked hard, as did everyone. It’s one of those things that happened instinctively. Even though we did some research prior to production, we didn’t really look at other movies. A lot of my instincts stemmed purely from my experience as a black man in America. It felt intuitive to me, and that’s the first time I ever had that on a project. Moving on as a filmmaker, I want to continue working that way.”
Roger Ebert was an early champion of the director, even before penning his three-and-a-half star review of Tillman Jr.’s 1997 sophomore feature effort, “Soul Food.” Turns out the filmmaker’s earliest encounter with the legendary critic stems back to his college days, when Tillman Jr. and his longtime collaborator, producer Robert Teitel, attended my alma mater of Columbia in downtown Chicago.
“Five years before ‘Soul Food’ was released, I made a short film in college called ‘Paula,’” he said. “It was only 30 minutes long, and I sent it over to Roger Ebert, asking for him to review it. Believe it or not, he actually did. In the review, he mentioned some issues he had with the film, but there was one line he had in there that blew me away. He said, ‘You have potential to be a good filmmaker.’ That’s all I needed. That one line took me to a whole other level. So when ‘Soul Food’ came around, it was amazing when I got his review because it connected back to some of the things that he suggested the short film could be. I actually got the chance to meet him at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 when ‘Men of Honor’ was there. He took a picture of me and put it on a website where he had pictures with all the filmmakers he had met. I was very happy to be included in that.”
In his “Soul Food” review, Ebert discussed how the film “depicts a world which white audiences will find unfamiliar,” namely the one occupied by black working class Americans. In terms of content, “The Hate U Give” couldn’t be timelier, considering it’s being released within the same month that Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, another youth robbed of his life on unforgiving city streets. There’s no question Tillman Jr.’s film would make an essential double bill with Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting,” another powerful illustration of modern-day prejudice amplified shamelessly by our president.
“What I want to illuminate for audiences is the importance of having empathy instead of sympathy, of having understanding as well as the ability to listen to each another,” Tillman Jr. told me. “We must have the tough conversations provoked by this film, and I’m very excited for audiences to take it all in.”
Among the most potent truths illuminated by “The Hate U Give” is the tendency for white people to mistake “color blindness” as a form of acceptance. Having been open about her own sexuality in recent years, Stenberg told me that the importance of acknowledging one’s identity extends far beyond the realm of race.
“Whether it’s your blackness, your gayness, your trans-ness or whatever it is, I think it is always so important to acknowledge the components of self that make us us,” stressed Stenberg. “The premise of ‘I don’t see color’ is one that rests upon the idea that we live in a post-racial or post-identity society, which is not true. When we relate to one another and see, hear and regard each other, I think it’s really important to be inclusive of all the different facets of self that contribute to one’s own experience. You have to make sure that when you are seeing someone, you are seeing them not despite of who they are, but including and because of who they are.”
A line could certainly be drawn between the inciting incident in “The Hate U Give” and a wrenching flashback in Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” where a young man is gunned down in his car by a cop, right in front of a wall covered in Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama “Hope” posters. The deceased boy’s mother, Veronica (Viola Davis), is no stranger to heartache, having also lost her husband (Liam Neeson) in a fiery shootout triggered by his unlawful schemes. Now left with an unseemly debt to pay, Veronica teams up with the wives of her husband’s late partners-in-crime (played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon) to launch a caper on their own, one that will set their future free. Cynthia Ervio, the Tony-winning star of “The Color Purple” on Broadway, has a pivotal role as the team’s driver, while “Get Out” protagonist Daniel Kaluuya proves scarily effective as the ruthless brother of alderman candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).
After helming three astonishing albeit emotionally grueling masterpieces, “Widows” is McQueen’s first stab at popcorn entertainment. Though it has a considerable number of laughs, gasp-inducing twists and applause-worthy moments to spare, it’s also very much in line with McQueen’s signature visual style, from its opening sequence set in bed, mirroring the pre-title shots in “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave.” For me, the greatest pleasure of the film, which screened last Saturday at CIFF, is viewing familiar Chicago locations through the director’s distinctive painterly lens.
“Thank god you didn’t tear the buildings down, you kept them!” laughed McQueen on the red carpet when I asked him about how the Windy City appealed to him on an aesthetic level. “Of course, the architecture is crazy. There’s a Gothic-ness to Chicago, and there is a different level of it outside of the city—one of decay and neglect. It was a very rich canvas to work with, both socially and economically.”
The film’s extraordinary ensemble is populated with many of the city’s brightest talents, including “Runner” director Clare Cooney, who shares the film’s final moments with Debicki and Davis, as well as “The Wise Kids” star Molly Kunz, who plays Siobhan, the devoted assistant to Jamal’s adversary in the alderman race, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). One of the biggest laughs is delivered by Mulligan’s father (Robert Duvall), who refers to Siobhan as a “red-headed paperweight.”
“Chicago talent is just there, and it’s hungry,” said McQueen. “I was so grateful to be working here because I could connect with these geniuses and they helped me tell a story. Carrie Coon is a local hero and I thought she was amazing the first time I saw her in ‘Gone Girl.’ It was a pleasure to work with her.”
Another local hero crucial to the success of “Widows” is “Gone Girl” author-turned-screenwriter Gillian Flynn. Along with McQueen, she adapted the five-hour 1983 British miniseries upon which the film is based, condensing it into a swift running time clocking in just over two hours. Though the film succeeds overall, it could’ve benefited from devoting more scenes to its central quartet of women. Jean-Marc Vallée’s HBO adaptation of Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, took full advantage of its eight episodes while brilliantly visualizing how the author interwove the past and present experiences of her heroine, Camille (Amy Adams). Passages where she “flashes to” fragments of her childhood are expressed through nearly subliminal cuts by Vallée’s perceptive team of editors.
“Those moments were definitely written in there, but I loved the way that Jean-Marc directed them,” said Flynn. “Some flashbacks bring a film to a halt, whereas these have a dreamlike quality. They really make you feel like you are floating back into her memory. We wanted Camille’s memories to be a part of the show because it is so much about memory, about where you come from.”
While speaking with Rodriguez, I brought up how Ebert wrote extensively about his conversation with her at TIFF (around the same time he met Tillman Jr., oddly enough) in his enthusiastic review of her breakout role in Karyn Kusama’s directorial debut, “Girlfight.” She had told Ebert that the role taught her discipline, allowing her to break out of irresponsible patterns and “dedicate herself to something,” so I asked her whether acting serves a similar function in her life today.
“For me, acting was a way out of poverty,” said Rodriguez. “Then it mutated into a means of activism, and a way to see the figure of a role model on the screen that I didn’t have growing up. Eventually, it led to me hitting a wall, and I realized that I didn’t have anymore room to grow in the action film world, making commercial movies. I wanted to evolve as a person and as an actress. After 16 years of doing the same s—t, man, I can’t expect to grow. Then I met McQueen and—boom—I discovered my feminine side. I honestly don’t feel that I’ve actually been challenged since working with Karyn on ‘Girlfight,’ until now, so it was a beautiful experience. I was really grateful for it.”
Perhaps the best shot in the movie, courtesy of McQueen’s irreplaceable DP Sean Bobbitt, is the one where Kunz and Farrell have a heated verbal altercation while the camera remains outside their car, surveying how the landscape shifts from derelict to wealthy in a matter of minutes. It also calls attention to how both candidates for alderman share the same initials, not to mention similar designs for their campaign signs. In microcosmic fashion, the sequence encapsulates McQueen’s overarching use of juxtaposition throughout the picture. The camera will go from caressing the gorgeous ceilings of spaces such as the Chicago Cultural Center to delving into back alleys of areas so poor, they seem to be part of a different country altogether.
“Along with Steve, Gillian took Chicago and turned it into a metaphor for economic subterfuge,” noted Rodriguez. “If you look at Chicago, it is the perfect example—around the world—of what a democracy, an urban area and poverty can look like. He goes all the way from the quest for power of men in government and how they can take advantage of people, all the way down to the guy selling drugs on the street corner. Then he split that pyramid in half and showed the struggle of women for survival in this environment. I thought that you always had to sacrifice depth and quality in order to make a viable script or a script that speaks or resonates universally, and I was so wrong. If I take anything from this experience, it’s this amazing hope for the potential of two hours and 120 pages in a script to really pack in a good punch.”
Though the carpet was overcrowded, preventing many stars in attendance from speaking to press (Neeson passed by just long enough for me to believe he’d make a stellar Lincoln), Davis made a point of giving impassioned and thoughtful answers to everyone on the carpet. Unquestionably one of the greatest living actors in the world, Davis spoke openly about the need for richer female characters, claiming during the post-screening Q&A that the majority of roles she gets offered—even after winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Fences”—are “moms with no vaginas,” prompting moderator Richard Roeper to quip, “Sorta makes the whole mom thing a miracle!” Also in attendance at the screening was “A Light Beneath Their Feet” director Valerie Weiss, who helmed the most recently aired episode of Davis’ ABC series, “How to Get Away with Murder.” When it was my turn to chat with Davis, I asked her whether TV has proven to be more inclusive for women, both in front of and behind the camera.
“Television has gone through a renaissance,” Davis told me. “We now have 400 television shows airing, so the woman who may have been the 13th lead in a film can now lead her own TV show. And she can be written for. TV is now a ripe ground for people like me—the character actress—and all we really want is to have work that reflects our potential.”
I followed up that question by praising the unforgettable scene from early in the show, where Davis’ character, Annalise Keating, removes her makeup and wig while staring at her reflection in the mirror.
“Yes, it’s me,” said Davis excitedly. “I’ll take credit for that moment, but I will say that [show creator] Peter Nowalk is a great collaborator. He is always there to rally me, and I told him, ‘There is no way I’m going to go on TV and not play a real woman. I can’t do it. I don’t know how to walk in heels, I’m not a size two, and I’m not getting to a size two, that’s not happening.’ And so, I knew that if I did something that was real like that, they would have to write for that. They would have to deal with her. And I was tired of seeing the other. Everybody has the right to be exactly who they are. I told Peter, ‘I think Annalise is pansexual,’ and he said, ‘Okay, now why do you think that?’ I said, ‘I think she’s reached a point where she is open to love whomever she wants to love.’ There was something so beautiful about that. I am proud to play a character that is so open and free. To me, that feels strong and revelatory, even moreso than just being the black female lead of a TV show.”
As Davis made her way along the carpet, she elaborated on how crucial it is for audiences to see empowering figures of all stripes represented on film. JuVee Productions, the company Davis founded with her husband, Julius Tennon, aims to help make this dream a reality.
“People want to see themselves and their own images on the screen,” affirmed Davis. “That’s it. When I was six years old, it was very powerful for me to see Ms. [Cicely] Tyson for the first time in an autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman, because she was someone who looked like me. It’s like the saying goes, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t believe it.’ Art has got to reflect life. It can’t be a filtered, watered-down version of what life is, and people need to see female empowerment in movies. They also need to redefine what empowerment means. Empowerment doesn’t mean just getting up and beating the crap out of someone, holding a gun and shooting them in the head. As this film illustrates, empowerment is gaining ownership of oneself, one’s authenticity and autonomy. It’s saying, ‘This is who I am and I’m not apologizing for it anymore. I don’t care if you think I’m not pretty, I don’t care if I don’t fit the social norm. This is who I am and by god, I am worth it. I don’t have to hustle for it.’ And that’s what you see in this film. You see it in the bodies of Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Ervio, Elizabeth Debicki and myself. We couldn’t be more different.”
“As women, we have to empower each other,” Davis continued. “That is when community and connection are important. Oftentimes women are pitted against each other—whether it be through divisions of class, race, age, who’s deemed ‘pretty’—and male driven culture has allowed a lot of that to happen. I don’t think we understand how much we need each other. I can’t stand alone in my truth. I need to feel connected. These women who are raising their kids on their own—they need help. I grew up in abject poverty, and people ask me all the time how I got where I am today. I always say, ‘Because someone threw me a rope.’ Sometimes it was a tattered rope, but they threw it to me and I grabbed ahold of it.”
“The Hate U Give” opens in wide release this Friday, October 19th, while “Widows” hits U.S. theaters on Friday, November 16th.