In 2016, Fox film executive Elizabeth Gabler, optioned author Angie Thomass debut young-adult novel, The Hate U Give, about an African-American teenager Starr Carter, who witnesses the death of her friend at the hands of a white policeman. At the time, Thomass book had yet to be published, let alone spend 85 weeks on the New York Timess young-adult best-sellers list, as it eventually did. But Gabler has a knack for zeitgeist-y, though risky material. She previously picked up John Greens The Fault in Our Stars and Becky Albertallis Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (which became the film Love, Simon). In Thomass book, she saw a chance to present a new voice to an underserved audience with a universal story about fitting in.
“We always believed in the story of the book, and it was something we wanted to tell,” said Gabler in a recent interview. “Films are always a risk, especially these delicate ones.”
Two years later the film, featuring up-and-comer Amandla Stenberg as Starr, has entered cinemas in both a very good month for movies, and one of incredibly stiff competition. The Hate U Give opened wide this past weekend on roughly 2,300 screens, opposite Halloweens nearly 4,000. It held its own with a modest $10.6 million at the domestic box office so far (less than half of its $23 million budget), versus Halloweens record-breaking $77 million. It also has had to compete against Venom and A Star Is Born, both of which have already crossed the $100 million mark at the global box office. According to analyst Paul Dergarabedian, this October is up 54 percent over last year, and shows little sign of abating.
Still, with a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an A+ exit poll on CinemaScore, and preview screenings that tested as well in predominantly white Sacramento as they did in the majority black L.A. neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, can The Hate U Give have the same trajectory as the book and become a slow-burn box-office hit, too? It will need some time and room to breathe once Halloween and Venom pass through. “We have every damn movie out in the next few weeks,” said the films director, George Tillman Jr., with a laugh. “Im just trying to see how are we going to fit in. You know what I mean?”
Sometimes, critical praise and positive word of mouth arent enough to move the needle to create a box-office sensation or even a modest hit. Because The Hate U Give centers on a contemporary African-American experience, there arent a lot of comparisons for the studios to use in predicting its ultimate outcome. Some analysts have drawn similarities to the Oscar-nominated Selma (which grossed $52 million domestically) and Hidden Figures ($169 million domestically), but both of those films were set in the past, allowing the racism at their center to be viewed through the gauzy lens of history. The Hate U Give focuses on the current social climate, which gives the movie its energy, but may also turn off audiences not interested in confronting topical issues at the multiplex. Thomass book already has had to fight a battle or two in our new culture wars. Some school libraries in Texas and Missouri pulled the novel from shelves, citing its depiction of drug use, profanity, and offensive language.
Stenberg, who has been traveling around the country, hasnt experienced any hostility to the movie. “Its pretty entertaining,” she said. “If there is any criticism [of the film], its probably from people who havent seen it and have preconceived notions about what it is. If they construe it as an anti-police film, thats really inaccurate. Its an anti-police-brutality film.”
Dergarabedian thinks the movie still has a chance to connect, especially with the young-adult crowd. (Surveys of opening-weekend audiences show that viewers were made up predominantly of African-American women over 25, but teenagers were also a strong segment.) ”Fox is giving it a chance to build,” he said. “Hopefully, when the dust clears a little bit next weekend, audiences should find some breathing room to catch up on their moviegoing.”
Those involved in the film are measuring its success on more personal terms. Stenberg, 19, signed on to the movie in January 2016, during her senior year of high school, connecting viscerally to Starrs double life growing up in a modest, primarily African-American neighborhood and traveling to the fancy, mostly-white private school like she did in Los Angeles. And her travels with Tillman Jr. to places like Mill Valley, Atlanta, Chicago, and the Hamptons have evinced similar reactions among audiences of the film, despite the demographic shifts.
“Everyone has a different emotional response depending on who they are and what speaks to them,” said Stenberg. “There have been some people who are white, or who havent had these experiences, who understand now that they didnt understand how to conceptualize these [shootings] in a way that was personal before. [Police brutality] has been politicized, and many have been influenced by how they played out in the media. Its been really beautiful to watch—people who didnt have those experiences, crying, saying, I didnt know it was like this for your communities.”
Tillman Jr. pointed to a moment a few weeks ago when Fox screened the film in Atlanta. As the director was walking out of the theater, he felt a tap on the shoulder. He turned around to face a family of four adults of varying ages. “We are part of the Emmett Till family,” they said to him. “We want to thank you for making this movie.”
“Im making this movie 55 to 60 years later, and its the same issue,” said Tillman Jr. “Seeing [Tills family] face-to-face there, that changed the dial.”
“The goal was to make a really strong film that could hopefully change peoples perspectives,” said Gabler. “To make them feel that there is hope for them—that if we use our voices, we can stop the circle of violence. Weve achieved those goals.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.