‘Even I have my fears’: How Angie Thomas and ‘The Hate U Give’ went from Belhaven U. to the big screen

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If you follow New York Times Young Adult Bestselling author Angie Thomas on social media, you probably have noticed that she has been traveling the world promoting her book The Hate U Give and the highly anticipated movie of the same name.

One of her last stops before the motion picture’s October 19 release: New York City. Between exploring Time Square with The Hate U Give leading actress Amandla Stenberg, joining her on MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL) and sitting down for an interview with Gayle King, Thomas took a phone call with Mississippi Today.

The struggle to survive

“It’s always interesting when I tell kids about it,” Thomas said. “When you tell them you’re from Mississippi, they think, ‘Oh, you grew up on a farm, didn’t you?’ I’m like, ‘No, my neighborhood was more like Compton.’”

Thomas’ childhood neighborhood, Georgetown, is one of Jackson’s historic African American housing districts. It’s an area that Thomas says is “unfortunately known for all the wrong reasons,” for the prevalence of drugs and neighborhood gangs.

“My mom and my grandmother always made sure though that our home was a safe haven away from all of that,” she said. “I was blessed in the sense that I didn’t experience so many things that some of my friends, and even my classmates, went through.”

Although Thomas’s family tried to shelter her from crime and violence, the fight to survive financially remained constant for her family.

“We were poor, and we struggled at times,” she said. “Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if we would have the lights on.”

Ambitionz as a writer

The Mississippi that Thomas knew served as a constant reminder of her state’s troubled past, especially while living in the former neighborhood of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Her Mississippi also proved that the issues African-Americans faced in the past, were alive and well.

Reading and rap, she said, helped her escape the harsh realities of the world around her and helped her discover the voice that would ultimately influence a world of listeners.

“Books were always a great escape for me,” Thomas said. “They were always one of those things that I had that just always got me away from it all. I often say that I could ignore the gunshots at night in my neighborhood if I was so caught up in Harry Potter.”

The provocative lyricism of The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and TLC not only prompted Thomas to hone her voice but also empowered her to use it.

Thomas’ love and appreciation of Tupac carried over to writing. The late rapper’s abdominal tattoo, which reads “THUG LIFE,” an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” inspired the title of Thomas’ novel.

For a time, she thought that rap was the best way to express herself, but she eventually realized it wasn’t the best vehicle for her kind of storytelling.

“Look at The Hate U Give,” Thomas said. “It’s like 400 pages. I can’t get that into a song. I’m not talented enough to do that. For me, (rap) was a way to speak up and speak out and use my voice. If nothing else, it let me know that I had a voice.”

The Hate U Give in infancy

Belhaven University

An aerial photograph of the Belhaven University campus in Jackson, Miss.

Unsure of whether to pursue a career as a screenwriter or a novelist, Thomas began researching college programs, sure of the fact that she wanted to remain close to home.

She came across Belhaven University, a private Christian liberal arts school, located only ten minutes from her home. “It had a creative writing program as well as a screenwriting class,” Thomas said. “For me, that’s what sold me.”

During her college experience, Thomas endured various  microaggressions and comments from white fellow students that “they don’t realize are racists but are racist.” Just like her mom and grandmother did when she was a young girl, her professors provided her a safe-haven, she recounts.

“All of my professors knew me,” Thomas said. “One of my professors, after my grandmother passed, made it his business to come cut our yard every single weekend. It was that family atmosphere and feeling as if I wasn’t just a person on a conveyor belt being pushed through. I was a part of a family.”

Thomas even credits one of her professors with encouraging her to tell the stories from her neighborhood that deserved to be told.

After having trouble deciding which direction to take her senior creative writing project, it was a pivotal conversation with a professor, her dealings with discrimination and the shooting death of Oscar Grant by a police officer in Oakland, Calif., that prompted Thomas to pen a collection of three short stories set in a neighborhood similar to Georgetown. Each story was told from the perspective of one of three main characters.

Thomas graduated from Belhaven in 2011. “Deciding to study creative writing, there was honestly one of the best things I could have ever done for myself,” she said.

While she embarked on the rest of her life post-graduation, Thomas witnessed the lives of more young, African-American men cut down.

“I had foolishly thought that after Oscar Grant happened, we wouldn’t see anything like that again,” she said. “But then there was Trayvon Martin. Then there was Michael Brown. Then there was Tamir Rice. And suddenly, I’m hearing politicians … try to justify these young men’s deaths like some of my classmates tried to justify Oscar Grant’s.”

The burning hurt was reignited.

The fear and frustration echoing among young black children in her church and community motivated Thomas to return to those short stories she wrote in college. “I wanted to write something that said, ‘I see you. I understand you. I love you.’ And that was the whole point of me writing the story and deciding to turn it into a novel — for them to see themselves and for them to hopefully walk away from it feeling empowered.”

Thirteen publishers fought for the rights to publish The Hate U Give. In 2017, after its release, the novel landed atop the New York Times bestseller list for young adult hardcover books after just one week in print. It has remained there for over 50 weeks. The book, Thomas’ first and only published novel, has been on the list a total of 85 weeks.

The stars align 

It was no secret in Hollywood that 13 publishers wanted to publish The Hate U Give. The buzz spread rapidly throughout the literary and film worlds.

Thomas’ novel eventually landed in the hands of George Tillman Jr., who directed such movies as Soul Food, Men of Honor and Roll Bounce.

“He read it, and he immediately wanted to talk to me,” Thomas said. “So we hopped on the phone and he was just telling me just how much he loved it and just what he could see it being as a film. From that very first phone call, I was like, ‘That’s the guy.’ If we’re going to make this into a movie, that’s the guy.”

Represented by the same talent agency as Thomas, actress Amandla Stenberg read the novel around the same time. Their agents connected, and the film project moved forward.

“She absolutely fell in love with it and wanted to attach herself to the project immediately,” Thomas said. “It was all these different elements. From there, George took it to the studio and Fox immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s do this.’ From the beginning, it took all of these people who were passionate about the story to come together and bring it to this point that it’s at now. I felt very blessed in that sense, to know that that many people had connected with it.”

What was once a collection of short stories collecting dust on a desk in Jackson, Miss., would eventually turn into a critically acclaimed “must read” novel and impact the lives of countless readers, particularly students and teachers. 

Marsha Sanders McEwen, a Tupelo Middle School temporary substitute teacher and tutor, introduced the novel to her students after meeting Thomas at a book signing event at Square Books in Oxford last year. About 10 of her students have read the book but she encourages everyone to experience The Hate U Give in either book or movie form. 

“Angie put the spread out,” McEwen said. “You can have your choice of whatever you want to eat on the table. Just get full, because this movie will make you full. The book literally made me full. I just couldn’t put it down. Because the book is so relatable, it’s so teachable. This is a teachable moment in every aspect: family, community, authority.”

The trauma that follows

Although it is a novel, The Hate U Give is inspired by something that is very real. The Black Lives Matter movement, according to its official website, was founded in 2013 by “three radical black organizers… in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman.”

Since the movement’s origins, a thick cloud of controversy, tension and discrimination has followed activists and artists who have shone light on the shootings of unarmed black men and women in the U.S.

Thomas says she has experienced it and even thought about giving up because of harassment.

“There was a point when I was ruthlessly trolled on Twitter, from death threats to all kinds of racist graphics sent at me,” she said. “It put me at a point where I was like, ‘Why continue to speak up and speak out?’ It really made me want to step away from everything. But I had to look to Starr for inspiration, the character I came up with. I had to look to her for inspiration to keep going and to keep speaking out.”

Sereena Henderson / Mississippi Today

Author Angie Thomas (left) takes a picture with one of her fans, Joyce Lawson, at a celebration for Thomas hosted by the city of Jackson at the Two Mississippi Museums Oct. 10, 2018.

Thomas continues to seek the good in every situation. For instance, according to her, some police unions have criticized her novel and the messages within it. At the same time, some law enforcement agencies have teamed up with local schools to establish book clubs that foster understanding and community dialogue centered around her novel, something that keeps her positive.

If you ask Thomas, her turbulent experience has made her stronger and more outspoken.

“If nothing else, I hope that I’m showing young people that even I am challenged,” she said. “Even I have my fears through this. Even I have my hesitations. But it’s worth it to keep speaking up and speaking out.”

For more information on Angie Thomas and The Hate U Give visit angiethomas.com.