The tragedy that drives The Hate U Give is something that is, unfortunately, very true to life and far too common: the shooting of an unarmed black teenager. In The Hate U Give, his name is Khalil (Algee Smith), and a police officer shoots him in front of his friend Starr (Amandla Stenberg) after they get pulled over while driving home from a party. While the movie (out Oct. 5) and the book it's based on are both fiction, the story was inspired by one incident in particular.
Author Angie Thomas wrote the short story that would later become her YA novel while she was in college around the time that Oscar Grant was killed by a police officer in 2009. "He was an unarmed young black male who had a record," Thomas told NPR during a 2017 interview. "And at the time when his death was making headlines, more people were talking about what he had done in his past than the fact that he unjustly lost his life."
Grant, who was unarmed, was killed by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer at Oakland, California's Fruitvale station after police were called in regards to a fight. The police officer who shot him, Johannes Mehserle, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison. He served 11 months and was released in 2011. The 2013 film Fruitvale Station is about Grant's life in the 24 hours before the shooting.
Thomas went on to say that while Khalil was partially modeled after Grant, after college as the short story became an entire book, other similar situations began to influence her, as well. She explained, "...Honestly, there was inspiration from a lot of these cases that we see with unarmed black people losing their lives. Michael Brown — when he lost his life, there was more focus on what he had done sometimes than what was done to him."
It was important to Thomas to show the humanity of the character, what his life was like before the shooting. She told the WH Smith blog, "Going into this story, I knew I’d have only a short amount of time to write this character and hopefully give some insight into his hopes, dreams, and reality. I also knew that this short window could either make or break any empathy the reader formed for this young man." The New York Times best-selling author added, "I know many Khalils, and I wrote this character as an ode to them. His life mattered, and theirs do too."
Thomas also touched on this idea in an interview with The Cut. "In so many cases where unarmed black people lost their lives, the victims were young," she said of writing the book from a teenager's perspective. "Trayvon Martin was 17. Tamir Rice was 12. Michael Brown was 18. When young people see that, they’re affected by it. I know young boys in my neighborhood who said that they could have been Trayvon. They could have been Tamir." She hoped that presenting this story about Black Lives Matter through the eyes of a teen might help some readers better understand its mission. "People who already have their preconceived notions about the movement, about all of it. If I presented it from the perspective of this innocent teenage woman, they might be able to understand."
Now, her story is going from paper to the big screen, allowing even more people to get to know Khalil and perhaps have more empathy for the many young men who are a lot like him.