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The movie version of Angie Thomas best-selling young adult book, The Hate U Give manages to be a tribute to Tupac (who is referenced in the book and movie title) a homage to Black love, an indictment of gun violence, a nuanced perspective on police shootings of Black men, a primer for white allyship and a coming of age story all at the same time. Despite all that’s packed into it, somehow, it works.

It’s the story of what happens to a family and a community when a police shooting takes place in a Black neighborhood – in the movie, a fictional neighborhood called Garden Heights. The vagueness of the fictionalized location allows it to stand in as any Bllack neighborhood anywhere, which allows the audience further into the story. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, a teen whose life is impacted when she witnesses the police shooting death of her childhood friend, Khalil.

Through the support of her family, anchored by her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) she’s able to find her voice in the ensuing chaos, while navigating the contrast between her Black neighborhood life and her attendance at an upscale private school.

Though Stenberg, Hornsby, Regina Hall and Anthony Mackie do the heavy lifting as the movie’s leads (with a powerful appearance by Common) Algee Smith, 23, who New Edition fans know as the man who played Ralph Tresvant in the BET biopic has a brief but impactful role as Khalil whose death defines the film. We caught up to the actor/musician and Georgia native recently as part of a roundtable for press to see what he thought about his role in the movie and his breakout career after star turns in Detroit and The New Edition Story.

In the movie, Starr tells Khalil what to do very specifically when they are stopped by the police. Did your parents have that talk with you? 

For me, that came pretty late. My parents sat me down and had that talk with me pretty late – but no fault of my parents at all –  I didn’t grow up in the best neighborhood but I didn’t grow up in the worst neighborhood so that was never a major concern. So I got to the point where I started going out and doing things on my own and that’s when I kind of had that talk. When you realize the magnitude of it, you do do certain things, because at that point it’s not about being cool. When you’re gone, it ain’t no more cool.

How did you prepare yourself for that scene (when Khalil is stopped by the cops and eventually killed). Obviously, you knew what was coming, but as a young Black man knowing that this is something that could actually happen, how did you get yourself into that mindset?

It wasn’t hard to put myself in that mindset, because that’s a reality for me and a lot of my homies. Any of us could be dead at the hands of a police officer or by this justice system, period, or thrown in jail. Like you see in the movie, it’s like a conveyor belt, they just throw you in there. Unfortunately, I didn’t’ have to do a lot of digging for that scene. I think the preparation for me was listening to a lot of Tupac and just putting myself in Khalil’s head. I didn’t want to have too much anger towards the actor [who played the cop] and I apologized to him afterward but we had to be there to get that scene done.

It was interesting to see all the perspectives in the movie, including an honest one from Common’s character, who played a police officer.  Why do you think it was important to have all those perspectives highlighted?

The truth of it is that there are always different sides to every story. I appreciated that they showed that perspective because it’s very real. A lot of officers are in fear of their lives. The moment that they pull you over, the moment that they step out of the car, they never know what’s about to happen. Unfortunately when you’re Black, it’s just a bigger fear.

Do you think we blame everything on the system as opposed to the reality that our people do sometimes things that they shouldn’t be doing?

A lot of times I think we can make the situation worse just by having an attitude. We’re a proud people. But I think everything is rooted in that system. After slavery, when they freed us, it just became another form of slavery. But sometimes there are things that people do that escalate the situation when it doesn’t have to be escalated.

You’re so young in your career yet you’ve done some amazing performances right out of the gate. How did you prepare yourself for these opportunities and how do you stay grounded going forward?

I’ve always known since I was younger that I had a purpose. Everyone has a purpose, but I could always see it because my parents instilled that in me. Real faith-based, real ‘You’re here for a reason, do something with your life’ kind of thing. I’ve always known when I first starting writing songs at age 9, that was the beginning of me preparing myself. I always knew I wanted to be in entertainment but I didn’t know it would be like this.

I always prepared myself, but you can’t really prepare yourself for anything like this. The roles that have come after New Edition, the love, and even the bad side, you can’t really prepare yourself for that. What I do now is I just keep my peace and keep my anchor and keep my family around me, a good team, and I keep my homies around me. When you get on, you’re getting the love, but then you have to go ten times harder and keep coming with it, because everyone is like when’s the next thing coming? So you just have to stay on your craft and keep doing what you were doing to get there.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Hate U Give” below:

PHOTOS: 20th Century Fox, Algee Smith Instagram, PRPhotos


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