“Make no little plans,” Daniel Burnham once said. And Angie Thomas took his advice. Her sprawling, complex first novel is remarkably ambitious. Though its hot-button issue is the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer, Thomas does not limit herself to that. There’s interracial dating, gangs, the ‘hood vs. the suburbs (where a pit bull – another issue – is not allowed), there’s “snitches get stitches,” a fried chicken ‘joke,’ a condom mistake, gunshots, arson, domestic abuse, hybrid families, Huey Newton, a discussion of names that black parents give their children, compromises and a debate about whether macaroni and cheese is a main dish or a side dish.
And aside from some occasional pedantic moments (often during conversations), Thomas pulls it off. This is an amazing novel – young adult? – I don’t care; it’s just an amazing book, one I’ll look forward to using in the classroom. Right now, I have a classroom that is 100% students of color. It would be a very interesting book to choose in a mixed-race classroom or even a largely white one. Much to consider here. I look forward to handing it off to students next week in order to get some reactions.
Angie Thomas’ website
Well, I just came from the movie. In a word, spectacular. The first praise has to go to the woman responsible for the screenplay, Audrey Wells. She took an outstanding and cherished novel and made excellent decisions about what to cut, adjust, streamline. She clarified several crucial moments, Khalil’s murder for one (the role of Khalil is played by a charming and knowing Algee Smith), in ways that, dare I say, served the story better than Thomas’ writing did. There is an unexpected twist at the end that made our whole family (and we’ve all read the book) gasp both in surprise and in recognition of its truth. The fried chicken moment was a bit underplayed. Maybe I wanted more there because it was such a rich moment for class discussion. Still, the resolution of the conflict between Starr and Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) is brilliant and harrowing.
I admit I was concerned about the role Wells gave to Maverick (Russell Hornsby) at first. It seemed like he was just going to make speeches, but as the movie developed, he became more human – a husband who could be both jealous and romantic, for example – I thought Hornsby showed the dynamic nature of the man. The scene where Starr finally allows Chris (K.J. Apa) to bring her home is a master class of comic timing. I’d pay just to watch that scene again.
Common makes the most of his role as Uncle Carlos. The character is less present here than in the book, but Wells’ decision here also seems spot on. The moment when he thinks he’s explaining the ways of the world to Starr, but she ends up explaining things to him is, like the comic scene I mentioned above, understated and perfect.
A great deal of credit has to go to the director, George Tillman Jr., who doesn’t waste a moment or a shot. His use of dashcam footage after the shooting, the framing shots of Garden Heights, his view of Williamson all show tremendous restraint. We see what he wants us to see. The woman who sells Starr her lunch in her private school’s cafeteria is the only other black person in the scene. It’s brief, but it’s no accident.
None of this works, though, without the remarkable performance of Amandla Stenberg as Starr. I’ll leave the discussion of the casting choice and colorism for another time. Stenberg inhabits the role. She uses her face, her body, her voice, everything to allow us to see her struggles to first “wear the mask” and then to cast it off. If there’s not a nomination for her (and Wells and Tillman), well, the Oscars will have shredded any remaining credibility they have in my eyes.
See it now. See it again. If you see it with children, make sure there’s time to talk about it. It’s not an easy story; it’s a necessary one, though, incredibly well-told by Thomas, by Wells, by Tillman – by everyone.