Zakiya M. Cowan’s Probe of Contemporary Texts: The Power of the Close-Up and Color in The Hate U Give

the hate u give
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Directed by George Tillman Jr., The Hate U Give is a film adaptation of the novel by Angie Thomas, a novel that rocked the world of contemporary young adult literature as it foregrounds the dark realities of police brutality and the ripple effect it can have on a community, and even a nation. The narrative follows Starr (played by actress Amandla Stenberg), a young black woman who witnesses the murder of her friend Khalil (played by actor Algee Smith) at the hands of a white police officer. From that point on, the audience witnesses Starr’s internal battle between wanting to remain silent in order to maintain a life of normalcy, or speak in honor of Khalil, and other black men that have fallen victim to these unjust crimes. As an audience, we are immersed into this complex narrative through the cinematographic moves of the close-up and color. Through the use close-up shots, and a varying color scheme, we are no longer allowed to be voyeurs, distantly observing  Starr’s hardships. Instead, we are forced to engage with the characters on screen, empathize with them, and face the issue of police brutality head on.

Color in the film is used conceptualize the stark differences in Starr’s life. As her story advances, the audience witnesses her struggle to maintain her “two selves:’ the self that resides in the predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights, and the self that attends a predominantly white and upper-class high school, Williamson. And it is through symbolism that her binarized personality and environments are conveyed. During the film’s opening, multiple shots capture Starr’s home of Garden Heights, all of which contain a subtle gold undertone. This honeyed hue generates a feeling of a warmth and safety, conveying the tight-knit, protective community members that make up Garden Heights. On the other hand, in scenes at Williamson High School, there are overtaken by a dreary blue tone that projects a cold, harsh, and distant feeling. Both settings represent the two versions of Starr that emerge when she inhabits either the space: the Garden Heights’ Starr that is conscious and vocal about race relations, and the Williamson Starr that quiets herself and fine tunes her ability to code switch so her white peers will not perceive her as “ghetto.” Thus, the addition of the subtle undertones throughout the film attests to both the impact of symbols and how they can affect the way a film is interpret, as well as make a statement about the noticeability and importance of color, especially in such a racially charged film.

Another cinematographic element of The Hate U Give that makes it powerful is the use of the close-up shot and its ability to evoke visceral responses from the audience, while simultaneously bringing the viewer into the narrative, stripping us from the privilege of being able to look away. There are multiple close-up that capture Starr’s face as she endures the emotional turmoil of having a loved one murdered in front of you. One close-up in particular that is emotionally shattering is when Starr screams and cries as she sits, handcuffed, next to Khalil’s bloodied, lifeless body. The intimate camera angle allows the audience to closely see the contorted, hurt expression on Starr’s face. And in that intimate, personal moment, no matter their background, are able to connect with her from a humanistic level.

Close-ups are implemented in the film to create moments of tension between characters and making underlying political commentary. There is a scene where Starr and her uncle Carlos—who is a police office—are engaged in a serious conversation as Starr exposes her uncle’s biases. As she questions on whether or not he would treat a black man the same way as a white man in a traffic top, the camera shifts back and forth between the two characters, sandwiching the audience in the middle of the heated conversation. And as we are positioned between Starr and Carlos, the shots back and forth between their faces, the audience is forced to evaluate their opinions on police officers’ biases, needing to pick a side. This same type of tension via close-up is seen later in the film when Starr’s seven-year-old brother, Sekani, is  pointing a gun at a gang member terrorizing his family. As he is pointing the gun at the gang member, there are two police officers positioned off to the side. This becomes highly intense because everyone becomes still, waiting for Sekani to the fire the gun. Although, they know that if he fires the gun, the cycle of black boys and men being murdered by police will commensurate again. The camera closes in on Sekani’s face as his eyes brim with tears. Sitting in the audience, this shot of a fear-stricken face can be interpreted as the little boy’s fear to fire a weapon that could murder someone, as well as his fear to be murdered by the cops. And it is close-ups such as this one, that make this film transcendent. The cinematography makes the audience think and question their own values, as well as allows us to sympathize for the characters on screen.

While The Hate U Give is a resonant film because it grapples with the highly prevalent issue of police brutality, its cinematography plays a significant role in communicating its messages in a way that comes off the screen, physically and psychologically impacting the audience. Colors unveil binaries in the narrative that are equally, if not more moving than the dialogue itself. Through the use of close-up shots, audience members become intimate with the characters, seeing them in a way that is human and real and relatable. As a result, though the film tackles difficult subjects such as race and injustice, when viewers are engaged in the film on such a personal level, one’s background becomes unimportant. All that matters in these moments of despair and conflict is that we are all people who share similar experiences and emotions, in spite of what we may look like or where we come from. Close-ups in the film transport the audience into the narrative, there is room to a be a voyeur and have the privileged to turn away. Instead, the audience is obligated to pay attention, and experience the effects of police brutality themselves.

Zakiya Cowan, Managing Editor

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