Did you know that Mudbound was the best movie of 2017? And that it should have won way more Academy Awards than it did, which was zero? And that Dee Rees and Jason Mitchell were both robbed of nominations for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, respectively? And that Garrett Hedlund, my golden-voiced future husband, finally gave the performance of which we all hoped he was capable? DID YOU KNOW ALL THAT? DID YOU?
I mean, honestly, you probably did, because I’ve been complaining about how Mudbound was undervalued and underserved for like, I dunno, a solid year now? FOREVER? That’s basically my Pajiba aesthetic! Complaining about Mudbound and talking about Riz Ahmed!
And I am ready to now share with you this year’s version of my Mudbound frustration. Get ready for me to complain about this for weeks and months to come. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong, and I really, really hope so, but until then: Is Russell Hornsby going to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for The Hate U Give, or is he going to be overlooked? Because ONE OF THOSE OUTCOMES WOULD BE BULLSHIT. YOU KNOW WHICH ONE.
Joelle reviewed the film for us at TIFF, and I saw the movie at a Thursday night showing last week, and the theater was packed. All generations, a lot of families viewing the film together, a grandmother and her grandchildren in front of me and a group of teenagers behind me. The last audience experience I remember being this varied was Crazy Rich Asians, another movie adaptation of a very popular book that captured the nuanced experiences of a particular community. As Joelle mentions in her review, The Hate U Give is very much of THIS time — about a young black man shot and killed by a white police officer, sparking major divisions within a city and fracturing the life of young Starr (portrayed exceptionally in the film by the always-great Amandla Stenberg), who is the only witness to her friend’s killing.
Stenberg is the beating heart of The Hate U Give, adapted from the novel by Angie Thomas, and as Starr, they have to exhibit wide range throughout — the required code-switching between Starr’s primarily black neighborhood and family and friends and her mostly white school and boyfriend (played by KJ Apa; I now understand the appeal of Riverdale) is insightful, poignant, and often enraging. But as fantastic as Stenberg is, as great as Regina Hall is as Starr’s increasingly concerned mother, as affecting as Common is in this one scene where he has to admit his prejudice against his own community, Hornsby is just a step above. He gives a performance that is totally perfect, grounding all the movie’s messages about black identity, black love, and black pride and also making a statement about how to operate in a racist world that so often seems to be working to snuff those things out.
Hornsby plays Starr’s father, Maverick, a former member of the local gang that basically runs the neighborhood Garden Heights. After going to prison for years for a crime he didn’t commit to protect gang leader King (Anthony Mackie), Maverick returns home, removing himself from that life in exchange for time served. He’s happily married to Starr’s mother Lisa (Hall), and together they’re raising Starr, her older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson), and her younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright), and Maverick runs a neighborhood store that sells groceries and supplies to the community. (Otherwise, Garden Heights seems like a food desert.)
We meet Maverick in the first scene of the film, set years ago, when Starr is 9, Seven is 10, and Sekani is 1, and he’s giving his children the Talk: “You best bet we gonna get pulled over,” Maverick bluntly tells them as they all sit at the dining room table together. When a police officer pulls you over, what do you do? Where do you place your hands? How do you speak? What tone do you use? Do you make eye contact? Do you move? “Know your rights, know your worth,” Maverick says when he presents them with the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program. Don’t let anyone intimidate you, Maverick teaches his children; he gave them names with specific meanings, with pride and with intention, so they would live up to their potential. This is a man who believes his children can be the best and can do the best, and he is emphatic about arming them with the knowledge and self-love to do that: “Being black is an honor, because you come from greatness.” Don’t instigate, Maverick says, but don’t be afraid to know who you are. Don’t be intimidated, but know the reality of the world — and how ugly and dangerous it can be.
The movie opens with Hornsby, and it’s the right choice. The man can command a room. Your eyes are drawn to him immediately, and Hornsby plays Maverick like a tightly wound coil, a man who considers every choice before he makes his move. He looks at people slightly askew, with his head bent a little to the side or with his gaze upward, noticing actions and reactions, sizing people up. He’s hard to impress but his loyalty is unprecedented, and that’s all conveyed in how Maverick holds himself close to his family and his neighbors but apart from others — not afraid to show love to his wife or affection to his children but also not afraid to stand up to King. This is his community and where he belongs, and no one is going to question that. There’s deep confidence here and a rooted sense of belonging, and Hornsby’s Maverick helps Garden Heights come to life onscreen.
When the film jumps forward to when Starr is a high school junior, Maverick is still as loving and still as resolute, and Hornsby is a master at expressing all of it: his shock when Starr’s friend Khalil (Algee Smith) is killed; his concern for protecting Starr, especially from King; his wariness of the escalating danger facing his family; and ultimately his anger, at the white police officer who took Khalil’s life, at his police officer brother-in-law Carlos’s (Common) urges for the community to be calm, and at the situation in which Starr is now ensnared. Maverick is a man used to being in control; after Khalil’s death, he’s nearly powerless, and must accept that it is Starr now who must use her voice. He doesn’t grow bitter over his lack of power, but encourages Starr to find hers; he’s not perfect, but his mistakes make him a real person, not a bland hero. Hornsby oozes fatherly affection and guidance as he asks Starr what Tupac’s “Thug Life” lyrics mean to her, but he’s rudely overprotective when she brings home her white boyfriend, and then he’s intimidatingly powerful when he stands outside their home after a drive-by shooting, willing to protect his family from anyone King sends to attack them. Maverick has to be so many different kinds of “masculine” to ground this story, and Hornsby nails them all. His performance is staggering and unforgettable, and I’m already preparing myself for the snubs to come.
The campaign season has slowly started ramping up, and early guesses for Best Supporting Actor nominations are varied: Black Panther fans have hoped for months that Michael B. Jordan will be recognized for his visceral Erik Killmonger; Sam Elliott is a heartbreaker as the grizzled-sounding Bobby in current frontrunner A Star is Born; you can’t count out Mahershala Ali, a recent Oscar winner in this very category, for his role in the upcoming Green Book; Timothée Chalamet is so hot right now and gives a crushing performance in Beautiful Boy; Richard E. Grant could sneak in there for the gaining-in-buzz Can You Ever Forgive Me?; and John Krasinski could end up riding the success of A Quiet Place into this category. And there’s Daniel Kaluuya in Widows, Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Court Talk, or Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell in Vice. Or what if Bradley Cooper got nominated for Best Actor for A Star is Born AND Best Supporting Actor for The Mule? COULD IT BE?
So yeah, there’s hella competition this year, but I truly, unrelentingly hope that Russell Hornsby’s performance in The Hate U Give isn’t forgotten. Otherwise, you’re going to hear me complaining about it for the next year, just like Mudbound. I’ve told you to watch Mudbound, right? RIGHT???