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George Tillman Jr. introduces "The Hate U Give" Wednesday night at the Oriental Theatre.

Director George Tillman Jr.'s Milwaukee roots grow into "The Hate U Give"

George Tillman Jr.'s impressive career behind the camera ("Soul Food," "Barbershop") may have flowered far from Milwaukee, but his love for film grew its first roots right here in his hometown.

It was in Milwaukee, as a part of a church summer program on 48th and Capitol, where Tillman Jr. he saw his first movie on the big screen, the movie that inspired him to create him own movies: "Cooley High." And it was here where, at 16, his father let him take film classes at night over at UWM. His passion eventually took him to Chicago for film school, then out to Los Angeles, but Tillman Jr. still returns to the place where he and his fervor for film were born – like five years ago when he came back for the Milwaukee Film Festival to screen his film, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," the eventual Audience Award winner.

The director returned again Wednesday night for special sold-out preview screening of his latest project, "The Hate U Give," at the Oriental Theatre. And while the drama filmed in Atlanta and may take place in the fictional neighborhood of Garden Heights, Milwaukee and Tillman Jr.'s experiences growing up in the city can be felt in the final product.

Based on Angie Thomas' 2017 young adult novel, "The Hate U Give" follows Starr, a young black teenager who literally sits in the passenger seat to her friend Khalil getting shot and killed by a white police officer during what should've been a routine traffic stop (or what probably didn't need to be a traffic stop in the first place). In the aftershock of the incident, Starr questions whether to testify in the investigation, putting her comfortable life at a mostly white suburban school as well as her family at risk, but eventually finds an answer – and her voice.

Tillman Jr.'s film is a potent and powerful work, pulsing with righteous rage – though not blinded to the situation's complexities – and outstanding performances. In a just world, Amandla Stenberg turn as Starr would make her a star, commanding the film as a burning fuse, a young woman grappling with the newfound power and responsibility of her voice and identity while also just trying to cope with a horrific, painful loss. The rest of the cast rises to her level, from the perpetually underrated Regina Hall ("Girls Trip") as Starr's concerned mother to Russell Hornsby as her unrepentantly proud father with a past. Anthony Mackie from "Mister and Pete" makes an ominous appearance as well as the neighborhood drug dealer who'd rather Starr stay quiet.

"The Hate U Give" is also powered by a vision and a screenplay – written by Audrey Wells, who died just last week of cancer at the age of 58 – that is "unapologetically black," in the words of Shannon Sims, TMJ4 anchor and the moderator for Wednesday's post-screening Q&A with Tillman Jr. The film opens, for instance, on Starr's dad sitting her and her brothers down for The Talk – not about the birds and the bees, as white audiences may expect, but instead about how to handle themselves around the police, a family discussion many black viewers recognize all too well.

The book actually opens on Starr going to a party – a moment, Tillman Jr. told the Oriental Theatre crowd, where he almost immediately bonded with Starr's story and struggles with code-switching, recalling his own school experience in Milwaukee.

"She says, 'It's not enough to be me,' and I sort of connected with that a little bit, because I went to Clarke Street School – but I was a class clown, so my parents pulled me out of there and moved me over to Browning … and it was completely different," the director told the audience, also remembering a mostly white party in 2009 where he felt self-conscious to dance to hip-hop out of fear of being seen as a stereotype – only to be convinced by his wife to "be who you are" and hit the floor.

"That made me realize I was comprising myself around certain people – and I like the idea that this movie is about being who you are," he added. "Everybody can relate to that. It's not just an African-American thing."

While the winds are changing, Tillman Jr. and "The Hate U Give" are still rarities in Hollywood: a black director and a movie fronted by a strong black female lead (with a female screenwriter as well). According to the director, however, strong women was a common sight, and one he found a great appreciation and respect for, during his childhood in Milwaukee.

"It was easy for me in terms of directing because, on 10th Street and Burleigh with my grandmother, I grew up around women, so my relationship to female characters has always been present. That's something I love," Tillman Jr. noted.

As painful and righteously angry as "The Hate U Give" can be, the film also has its fair share of laughs and light, much more focused on life than death. (Fittingly, the rallying cry near the end of the film is, "Khalil lived.") It's a fiery movie – but one that's also filled with warmth and, at the end, hope, something that Tillman Jr. took from his youth in Milwaukee – and something he hopes audiences take from his new film.

"I remember a conversation – it had to be 1982 or '83 – where my dad actually sat me and my sister down and said, 'Hey, this year is going to be tough,' because he just got laid off from American Motors. I remember a couple years later we were still dealing with that. I can remember on Christmas Day, somebody actually broke into our house and stole our Christmas gifts. All these different things happened, but as an African-American and as a family, we find ways to keep going, to keep pushing through – no matter how many obstacles. That was the instinct for me growing up here.

"I just felt all families can relate to that – but more specifically, families who don't have much. They gotta find a way. That's what I wanted to make sure: Finding a way is finding humor, love, supporting one another – all those elements are all a part of life."

"The Hate U Give" is now showing at Marcus Menomonee Falls Cinema and the AMC Mayfair, with plans to expand to more theaters next weekend.


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