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Director George Tillman Jr talks The Hate U Give

FROM THE HEART: Director George Tillman Jr says he connected with Starr's story on a personal level

YOU PUSHED to direct The Hate U Give. Why was it so important for you to take the helm?

“I was just really connected to [Starr’s] journey, I guess, overall. I felt that the story was very relevant but I felt like the personal story with the family and identifying who you are, standing up for your voice, that’s something that I really connected to.”

Code-switching is a prominent theme in the film. How did you personally related to this aspect of Starr’s experience

“When I started in 1997 when I did Soul Food, there was really only like four or five African American directors that were kind of actively working at that time and most of the industry was dominated by white men. So a lot of times, when you go in to pitch a project, you were sort of trying to compromise or do things that they want you to do.

"They give you a certain budget and that’s sometimes not as big as the white directors or there’s a lot of limitations so you find yourself trying to get them to understand the material and sometimes that can be very complicated and code-switching itself.

“There’s not that much understanding of our world in terms of African Americans so we were always trying to get them to understand, always compromising certain, there’s more African American, more women directors, more women of colour directing and more African American showrunners that write TV shows so now we’re kind of controlling our own narratives.

“I felt not until this movie was I really able to do things that I wanted to do in terms of telling our stories.”

An incident of police brutality is at the centre of this story. How did your own experience with the police inform how you approached it?

“When I was 10 or 11 I first got the talk in terms of how to conduct myself around police officers and that kind of came from various black family members and from my father.

“After college I remember I didn’t have my driving insurance card and I made a right hand turn when I should not have.

“The police pulled me over. Usually they give you a ticket, but since I didn’t have it they actually took me back to the police station and they actually put me in a cell. I was like, that’s just for car insurance. I actually had to call my girlfriend, my wife, my girlfriend at the time and she came and got me out and showed my insurance card but I was just like, wow that’s a big step, so that kind of connected back to what my father said when I was having the talk.”

The film’s ending differs from the book. What inspired this?
“That was more a thing of how do we visualise the Tupac analogy, philosophy of THUG Life. We talk about it and we see it but I wanted to see it played out and we see how Sekani, how the young people are affected by that and how Starr reacts and I thought that was amazing.

“Angie Thomas was close by when we developed the script and I really wanted to get her impression, she really liked it a lot.”

It feels as though really get a chance, albeit it brief, to connect with Khalil through certain adaptations you’ve made. What motivated you to do this?
“I felt like it was very important for us to fall in love with him just like Starr did.

“I wanted to spend time really investing in that chemistry so we can understand who they were and why, and I thought Algee Smith who plays Khalil did a great job. I still get sort of emotional when I see when he kisses her, she says she has a white boyfriend and he tells her it’s OK. I just thought that illustrates how beautiful a person, human, that he is.”

While there won’t be a definite split, this film will undeniably have different impacts on white and black audiences. What impact do you want it to have on them?

“I want the audience on both sides to really conversate and be able to let this be a conversation starter be able to listen to one another and be able to find themselves in the movie and even if it’s good or bad, you know, looking at ways to improve and at the same time finding your own activist, finding your own way and being able to not be afraid to be yourself.

“I feel like I made it specifically for the African American audience people all around the world but I felt like I wanted a universal audience to be able to embrace it and understand because then how else are we able to heal and communicate.

“I want people to feel I want them to walk away feeling energised.”

PICTURED: Amandla Stenberg, Angie Thomas and George Tillman Jr attend The Hate U Give premiere as part of the BFI London Film Festival

How has making the The Hate U Give personally impacted you?
“I think it sort of had me trust my instincts for the first time.

“This was the first film where I just I went from my heart and I made choices based off me being a black man living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and living in Los Angeles and working in Hollywood, my interpretation and how I feel about police brutality, me seeing Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, seeing these things happen over and over. I was just going with my heart and that actors did too.

“For me, I was finding my voice when I was making a movie. I feel like this time I didn’t compromise, I wanted just to tell the truth that Angie Thomas presented.”

What do you think needs to be done to tackle the issue of police brutality against black people in reality?

“I think we have to look in the system, [it] has to be from ground zero. It’s the system, what is taught to police officers and what is taught about race historically – and it all dates back to slavery.

“Sometimes you have to start from inside and work your way out and that’s what I think needs to happen in terms of police officers and the police forces looking at themselves and figure out a new way.

“It’s also for us to keep fighting and keep speaking and keep standing up and keep protesting – that’s what Starr says in the film, ‘we will not stop protesting’.”

The Hate U Give is out in cinemas now

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