On Thursday, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced its nominees for the 2019 Golden Globe Awards, and, as usual, there was no shortage of snubs to lament, from Paddington 2 to A Quiet Place to Ryan Gosling in First Man. But among the many films ignored, one film—and one performance in particular—felt especially, conspicuously absent. Russell Hornsby’s turn as patriarch Maverick Carter in The Hate U Give, George Tillman Jr.’s movie about police brutality and its effects on black lives, ranks as one of the most layered and captivating pieces of acting this the year.
The Hate U Give, adapted from Angie Thomas’ YA novel of the same name, presents the aftermath of the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer, putting a human face to the type of news story that has so often been reduced to hashtags and Blue Lives vs. Black Lives Matter rhetoric. It also produced strong performances from stars Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, and, in particular, Hornsby, who acts as an emotional anchor for both his character’s children and for the audience. In a story filled with so many conflicting emotions, Hornsby gives a nuanced performance as he plays the kind of black father so rarely depicted on screen.
The Hate U Give opens with a wide shot of children playing outside on a lively residential block. Inside a home, a mother, a father, and their three children, one of them just a baby, sit at a dining room table. As the outside world fades away, the father—Maverick, we learn—begins a talk all too familiar for many black families in America, explaining to his children precisely what they must do if they’re ever stopped by the police, in order to ensure their safety. The scene is gripping because it feels years removed from anything a child should have to understand. And a big reason why it resonates so deeply is Hornsby’s intense delivery. Maverick’s pain, anger, and fear for the lives of his children are palpable as he teaches them modern-day survival skills. It’s Maverick who introduces his kids to the injustices of the world—and introduces the audience to their reality. With every word, Hornsby makes it ring true.
This continues over the course of the film: Through Hornsby’s portrayal, we can feel Maverick’s humanity being stripped from him, the fury and humiliation as he’s being slammed against a glass wall by the police, his family looking on. We understand the character’s strength and defiance by the way he stands on the Carters’ front porch all night, jaw set, without saying a word, to protect his home from danger. What makes Hornsby’s performance so singular is the number of layers that he communicates within one character, a dedicated father and husband, a former gang member and inmate, and a business owner. He is a man angry that the color of his skin has directly impacted his freedoms and his rights, and yet he’s proud of his community, of being a black American. This character is the product of the traps of institutional racism and an honest look at a familiar version of the black experience. It’s a tricky balance to put on-screen, but Hornsby manages to balance Maverick’s dual identity as both a militant Black Panther-esque teacher and the compassionate father to his children, even when others, like his wife, suggest that these two identities are in conflict.
Maverick is worlds away from the tropes that continues to persist in issue-driven American film, as seen this year with Green Book, which was nominated for a Golden Globe. That’s because Maverick is full of contradictions. Hornsby never allows the character to be defined by any one stereotype he could potentially fall into. It’s these types of characters and performances that deserve a larger cultural spotlight, especially as audiences and Hollywood decision-makers have the power to shift our collective, societal understanding of marginalized groups. And Hornsby is more than deserving, taking hold of the audience from the first seconds of the film and not letting them go until the credits roll.
Just as The Hate U Give humanizes what has become a political issue rather than a human one, Hornsby’s performance challenges assumptions about a character who looks like him, and gives a deeper understanding of the product of racial inequality and oppression in the process. Stories of black history like BlacKkKlansman and of black fantasy like Black Panther, two more Golden Globe nominees, are important. But stories of black reality, like The Hate U Give, are vital.
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