Angie Thomas’ journey from page to screen came full circle when her debut novel ‘The Hate U Give’ was adapted into a Hollywood motion picture last year starring Amandla Stenberg as the main protagonist Starr.
After grossing over $32 million at the box, and as Thomas readies the release of her second novel On the Come Up, the NY times best-selling author chatted with us about developing The Hate U Give in honor of its recent release on DVD, and Blu Ray.
The Knockturnal: Can you talk about the decision to make the speaker/main character a teenage girl who is ultimately describing a Black American experience versus choosing Seven’s point of view or Maverick’s who was incarcerated and prepares his children for tragic events?
Angie Thomas: For me, it was very important to make this book from the prospective of a Black sixteen-year-old girl. So often when we’re discussing police brutality and even racial profiling, we don’t discuss the impact it has on Black girls and how they’re often targeted as well. I remember when I was drafting the book, there were two incidents just a few months between one another, one in Texas where the young ladies were at a pool party and one of them was thrown onto the ground by a police officer, and then another incident at a school, I’ve forgotten what state, where a young lady was grabbed up by a security guard at her school and thrown onto the floor. And so we don’t talk about those things a lot with Black girls. We don’t focus on them a lot, and I understand because Black boys are so affected. But I wanted to talk to Black girls specifically with this, and I hope to empower them. The fact is with so many of our movements, at the core of these movements, at the root of them, are Black women. Black women started the Black Lives Matter movement, then go to the civil rights movement. Black women have always been right there at the core of these movements and started them in a lot of ways. So for me it just felt fitting. I wanted if not for nothing else to empower a new generation of Black women to find their voices and find their activism and keep it going.
The Knockturnal: With footage of Oscar Grant and Philando Castile’s murders and those of many others killed by police being out there, to what extent is it helpful to have access to actual video footage? Do you feel like it helps to give birth to the storytelling of The Hate You Give from the viewpoint of wanting to honor the very real and tragic police brutality narratives? And to what extent is it a disadvantage?
Angie Thomas: Well, you know, for me it’s a win-lose situation. On one hand, it feels like we need video proof, and then even when we have video proof, it does nothing. Let’s go back to 1992, Rodney King was caught on tape and they still got away with it. Then we see Oscar, his death was on tape. Then we see Philando, some of his death was on tape, and yet, we still did not get justice. And so after a while, it feels like we’re almost gonna become numb to it. I say, we, specifically for Black folks, we don’t have to put that in front of our faces, because we know what happens. I knew about things, like Oscar Grant, before I ever saw a video because I heard stories from my own family members and friends and I believe them off-top. It feels like if nothing else, these videos are almost needed to show people who are not Black to believe us when we say that this is happening. And that’s a shame to have to say that, but it feels like that. As far as those videos and proof like that fueling the story of The Hate U Give, honestly, I could have written the book without ever seeing one of those videos. Just from knowing that these are things that have actually happened, and being in Mississippi, hearing stories all the time. I have friends and family members who have suffered under police brutality without a video. Then on the flip side, I have family who worked in law enforcement and would tell me stories about what happened with colleagues of theirs. For me, having videos wasn’t necessary for me to write the story. How I was inspired from the Oscar Grant case, was when I was attending my mostly white, upper-class private school. I was angry and frustrated and hurt over his death, and so many of my classmates tried to justify it. So that, for me, was the fuel that really pushed me into writing it. They saw the video too, just like I did, but it still didn’t click with them that this young man was a victim. So for me that was why I wrote this story. Without a video or not, they would have still had the same mindset and I probably still would have wrote it.
The Knockturnal: There’s a scene in the film where Starr is being interviewed and she explains how everyone wants to highlight Khalil’s bad history, but no one talks about Khalil as the victim. Can you talk about some of the decisions you made while writing, which served as a way to help humanize Khalil in a way in which others might otherwise dispute?
Angie Thomas: For sure. When I was writing the book, I thought a lot about the young men in my neighborhood and the things that some of them are into and they do and it’s not right. But I also knew that if they were victims in a situation like this, they would still be portrayed as villains. Black people, especially young Black people, are never given the benefit of the doubt. We see what happens when young white kids do wrong and are outright racist, and still, they get sympathy through the mass media. Black kids don’t get that. Even when we’re victims, they show our mugshot. So I thought about that a lot as I was writing the book, and with Khalil I wanted him to not be perfect. There’s sometimes this assumption of “well if he was a great student and if he was not into trouble then we need to be angry about it.” No! If this is a young man, who is in the circumstance as Khalil is, for instance, he’s selling drugs because he’s trying to help his family out, and he feels like he has no other way. And why does he feel he has no other way? Because of the system that has been set up. So he has fallen into the trap that the system has set up. So why should we fault him for that so much and why should that take away from the value of his life? For me that was the question that I really wanted to ask, and then I wanted people to consider, how does the media play a role in this and in villainizing young Black people? Why is it that when these young men are killed, we see their mugshots, and we find out about their history before we find out anything about the shooter? So I definitely wanted to pose that question and address that and hopefully make people think about that a little more and maybe even members of the media will think about that a little more and how they portray us when we’re victims, instead of showing us as villains.
The Knockturnal: Starr’s boyfriend, Chris, has a sort of coming-of-age moment in the film when he decides to help save Starr’s family during the riot. Where did the inspiration for his character come from?
Angie Thomas: Chris is inspired by someone I actually know. I will say, just like Chris, he did not start off as ‘woke,’ and I say it all the time; Chris is not woke. Even by the end of the movie, Chris is not woke. Chris is drowsy. He’s got a long way to go before he gets woke. Through his character, I wanted to show the beginnings of a good ally. People always throw that word around, “ally, ally, ally.” He’s still not a 100 percent good ally at the end. He still has a long way to go. Honestly, ally is not the final goal. The final goal is co-conspirator, someone who uses their privilege to stand front-ground if they have to or even to the benefit of others who are doing the work so that the work can propel. So with Chris, I thought about the real-life Chris that I know, and as somebody who was extremely privileged, he’s one of the most privileged people you can find in America: white, straight, cis and rich. He had to get to the point of recognizing that he had that privilege. Then he had to get to the point of listening to marginalized people and finding out what was happening around him and then realizing how he could use his privilege to the benefit. So Chris was inspired by that, and I hope through the character of Chris, people who are privileged will recognize themselves and also recognize that they have a responsibility to use that privilege to fix things. Black folks did not create racism. Latino folks, Native American folks, we did not create racism. It is not on us, therefore, to fix racism. It is on white people to fix racism. So I hope through Chris, they see at least how to start that journey.
The Knockturnal: At a moment, Carlos described his point-of-view as an officer and his defense for the choices police officers make. Was there any backlash that you received in response to his point-of-view?
Angie Thomas: You know that scene, definitely… I haven’t gotten it myself personally, but I’m sure there are people who have a lot to say about it. When I do talk about the scene, I always tell people that, for me, that scene wasn’t about Carlos explaining what officers think and what they do, because the fact is, we know all of this. These are things that we hear in media all the time, we get the police officer’s perspective all the time. We never get the victim’s. For me, the big thing about that scene with Carlos, was him realizing his own internal bias. That was about him realizing that he had been put into a system that also made him biased against people that look just like him. For me, it was about him recognizing that, and even Starr coming to recognize that someone she loved so much, and holds so dearly in her life, and someone who had such a big part in her life, could fall into that mindset, that trap, and into that bias against Black people. We hear that all the time about ‘what goes through their mind’, but for me, that scene was about Carlos recognizing his own internal bias.
The Knockturnal: What is Sekani’s next chapter, in light of the series of events that he watched his family’s experiences as a young child, who ends up pointing a gun at King? Following that conclusion, what does Sekani’s future look like, if the story were to continue?
Angie Thomas: I see Sekani as one of those characters, that if I ever do a sequel… people always ask me “will I do a sequel?” I don’t have plans for one now, but if I were to do one, it would be about him. In the book, the family leaves the neighborhood, whereas in the movie, they stay. Either way, I think about how would that have an effect on him. And then too, the fact of him growing up in his sister’s shadow and witnessing all of this and seeing this. I would see Sekani as growing up -first of all, he’s forced to grow up too fast, like so many young Black kids are. That scene at the end of the movie, if nothing else, that is, unfortunately, the moment where this young man is forced to grow up in a way that he shouldn’t have to be. He is forced to do it quickly in a way that he shouldn’t have to be, like so many of our Black kids are. So I see him growing up being aware of those things even more. He’s like eight in the movie, but by the time he’s twelve, he knows a lot about police brutality and he also knows that there is a system set in place that is against him, that doesn’t see justice for people like him, and that’s something he has to carry. I see him being very aware and conscious of these things. But he won’t be the same after that moment. But I think in a positive way he won’t be the same, and I think in a way, he will find his voice in all this. And in the fact that society does not define his values, but he does. So I think that’s what will happen to him after all of this is over.
The Knockturnal: Your work translates super well on-screen, would you ever consider screenwriting or film-making?
Angie Thomas: Definitely, that’s a goal at some point. That’s definitely something I want to pursue. I want to tell Black girls’ stories in as many mediums as I can. So that is definitely something on Angie Thomas’ list.
Kristen Martin contributed reporting.