Angie Thomas' powerful novel The Hate U Give reaches the big screen on Oct. 5. The film and book follow Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) as she balances life between her low-income, mostly black neighborhood and the wealthier, mostly white prep school she attends. When her childhood best friend is shot by police after he and Starr leave a party, she experiences pressure from all sides about what to do and how to react. Eventually she finds solace joining an organization dedicated to fighting systemic racism against black people, but is Just Us For Justice from The Hate U Give a real organization?
While an online search shows that there are several groups calling themselves Just Us For Justice, their scope is far different from the group in The Hate U Give — one focuses on systematic injustice in the judicial process, another's emphasis is on stopping human trafficking, and others are about ordinary people working together for community good. With their specific emphasis on the inherent racial divide in due process, treatment, sentencing, and reaction on the ground, The Hate U Give's Just Us For Justice, headed by Issa Rae's April Ofrah in the movie, is a clear stand-in for real-life movement Black Lives Matter.
Thomas told Atlanta Magazine (among other publications) that the book, originally a short story, was inspired by the shooting death of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station in 2009. Like Starr, she attended a mostly white prep school. "I kept overhearing conversations that he deserved it," Thomas said. "I was angry. I was hurt. I was frustrated. The only thing I knew how to do was write. I got an A on the project but put the short story aside because it was so hard to write when I did. Then Trayvon, Tamir, and Sandra Bland happened, and I had to get back to it."
The emphasis on "black lives" in the real-life group's name has drawn ire from critics, who coined a counter-slogan blithely ignoring the racial disparity at the heart of the problem by declaring "All Lives Matter." That their fictional counterpart in Hate U Give emphasizes "Just Us" speaks to painful realization that those who remain comfortably unaffected are unlikely to be immediate allies. And yet The Hate U Give's Chris, Starr's wealthy white boyfriend, is someone who slowly learns over the course of the book what it means to listen and become aware of your own assumptions.
But the motivation and encouragement Thomas needed to tell the story the way she wanted came from just such an ally. As she told Ebony, "I had a professor, an older white gentleman, actually, and he pulled me aside and told me, 'You know, there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to your surroundings.' It wasn’t him saying, 'Ok, you’re the black girl. You need to write about black experiences.' I was having an honest conversation with him, and I said, 'I don’t think anybody cares about what’s happening in my world when I leave here.' And he said, 'There are stories there that need to be told and heard, and there are voices there that have been silenced. And if you want to, you can have the opportunity to give those voices a platform through your writing.'"
Black Lives Matter specifically notes on their own site "our dissent, demonstrations, demands, and tireless fight for dignity have revealed a ubiquitous white rage, resentment, and revenge," yet simultaneously in an interview with Broadly, BLM founder Alicia Garza notes that non-black support is needed for the movement to not be "just us." Speaking specifically about a mostly-white school who raised a BLM flag on campus in protest, she says, "It’s an incredible show of solidarity saying: We see you and we support you and you’re not alone."