Speaking to Amandla Stenberg feels strikingly like hanging out with a close friend, as well as interviewing a compelling voice from Hollywood’s twentysomething cohort. As we connect over Zoom, the conversational ground quickly spans from grumbling about media depictions of Gen Z to lamenting the elitist hierarchies that have emerged at queer Zoom parties. She also laughs a lot.
The laughter subsides and Stenberg reflects on the turbulent times that 2020 brought. She’s been Airbnb-ing and short-term renting for two years now – between New York, LA, Paris and Copenhagen – and has felt constantly unsettled since the pandemic hit. “I think sometimes I forget the lens through which I’m looking at things,” she says. “I can kind of get stressed out, wondering why I have so much anxiety, or why I’m in a constant state of paranoia and fear – and then I remember the circumstances.”
There are things to be grateful for, too, of course – she stresses that she doesn’t want to sound all “the pandemmy’s been so hard”, particularly since the actor, whose father is Danish, spent three months of the past year in the rolling hills of rural Denmark. “The thing I’m grateful for is definitely the opportunity to move more slowly – like actually thinking about my habits, the way I move through each day and what my priorities are.”
The 22-year-old, who is non-binary and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, has a lot of priorities on her plate. First and foremost an actor, Stenberg made her traditional breakout in 2012, as Rue in The Hunger Games, but she has also become synonymous with her progressive politics, after a school project she made on cultural appropriation went viral in 2015. In the video (titled Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows), a teenage Stenberg, complete with asymmetrical bangs, asks the question: “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?”
Ever since, Stenberg has routinely shrugged off the label of ‘activist’, keen to acknowledge that she is separate from the front lines. “Although activism is the driving force behind all my work, it creates this impression of seriousness, or that I won’t make mistakes,” she told The New York Times in 2018. Nonetheless, there are common threads of anti-racism and feminism in much of her work – with The Hate U Give (the 2018 movie based on the Black Lives Matter movement and adapted from the young-adult bestseller by Angie Thomas) among her most notable projects. Written in response to the shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009, the story follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old girl whose life is upturned when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by the police during a traffic stop.
The issue of police brutality forced a global resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, following the killing of George Floyd. While others were posting black squares on Instagram as a nod to the movement, Stenberg was quietly organizing. When I ask what that period of protest was like for her emotionally, she lets out a huge, overwhelmed sigh. “My God… I don’t really know if I’ve been asked that question before.”
“It was so challenging to balance needs. There was, like, the need for safety, the need to distance, and then there was also the need to fuck some shit up… But also the need to express rage, frustration and pain. And then the need for community, in order to debrief and decompress.” Stenberg found that sense of community at protests, in mass Zoom meetings and in the friendship and leadership of Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter and the leader of its LA chapter.
Among other things, Cullors offered the long-term vision that was so desperately needed in a moment characterized by chaos. “A lot of us brought this feeling of, like, ‘This is the moment, we must capitalize on it’… But throughout all that kinetic energy, she maintained this sense of calm, readiness and a commitment to abolition in a way that’s a lot more sustainable.”
“Most people of COLOR can tell that this is not a TRANSIENT moment. It’s YEARS in the making”
Part of this was about remembering that the moments of media attention will always pass, but the movement must continue – something that Stenberg suggests the entertainment industry could take heed of. She remembers the response to delays in production for The Hate U Give, it being suggested that “the film was only going to be relevant for a certain period of time, or that we needed to ‘strike while the iron was hot’. That struck me as a bizarre sentiment, because most people of color can tell that this is not a transient moment. It’s years in the making.”
In January, Thomas released a prequel to the book – Concrete Rose, set 17 years before The Hate U Give, in the same fictionalized Southern neighborhood of Garden Heights. Stenberg says the author has put a copy in the mail for her – and she feels both deeply excited and slightly nervous about reading it. “I don't want to sound like a pretentious actor or something, but I do feel like it’s going to be emotionally visceral; but also so beautiful… I just feel so invested in that story.”
“I’ve been EXPLORING those feelings of, like, ‘Is this ACTUALLY what I want? Was this chosen for me? Is there SUCH a thing as free will?’”
The pandemic has given Stenberg the ability to take a break from the business of storytelling and to ponder on other creative mediums. “I realized how many limitations I’ve been placing on myself, like what I’m capable of exploring artistically,” she says. Thinking about her career choice has always been complicated by the fact that she grew up around an LA community of actors (her mother is a former entertainment journalist) and she landed her first role aged five (in a doll commercial). “I’ve been exploring those feelings of, like, ‘Is this actually what I want? Was this chosen for me? Is there such a thing as free will?’”
She says there were times where it felt like an external force was propelling her forwards. Then, when acting gigs were stripped away for the first part of 2020, Stenberg’s other creative pursuits flourished, from learning to install her own lilac box braids to returning to her childhood instrument, the violin. “I started thinking about all the things I’m passionate about and the mental restrictions I place on myself,” she says. “I feel like a lot of those restrictions are to do with imposter syndrome.”
Music is Stenberg’s “favorite thing in the world” – not just the violin, but singing and producing – and, despite having around 30 demos under her belt, she feels shy about sharing her music with others. She’s also only ever worked with male producers and recalls creative moments where she’s wanted to try something different, or even a bit embarrassing, but has then felt the male gaze bearing down on her: “It permeates without you even realizing.”
These days, she’s allowing herself to try things out without that fear of embarrassment. At one point, she pulls up the lyrics of a recent rap she’s been writing, which is entirely from the perspective of a “bitchy robot”. “Catch you up with my laser vision. So easy, it’s my algorithm,” she raps in a mock slam-poet intonation, before collapsing into a pile of laughter.
It seems that, recently, Stenberg has been reflecting a lot on where she does and doesn’t belong. There are instances where this is clearly positive – for example, she is critical of the preferential treatment that lighter-skinned actors like herself have long been given in the industry. “When it comes to the representation of Black people in the media, I don’t think my presence is very radical at all,” she says. Consequently, she walked away from the final stages of the casting process for Marvel’s Black Panther, because she felt the role should go to a dark-skinned Black person.
“I see the ways in which the media has sold me, and other light-skinned actors in general, as monolithic representations of a Blackness. It is so damaging and gross – honestly, it’s nasty.” The anger in her voice is palpable. “It’s just like sneaky racism.” She says that she is now very wary when people try to position her as representative of all Black people’s experiences. “I have only one sliver of experience, and that sliver is also drenched in light-skin privilege.”
When I ask what kinds of projects and roles she finds herself drawn towards, her reply is instant: “Gay.” That’s where her passion lies (and right now, she nurtures it through an anonymous lesbian meme account, for which she won’t tell me the handle). Stenberg says it was less possible to explore queer projects as a teenage actor, but now, at 22, she feels ready to take the reins. “It’s been really gratifying to arrive at a point where I’m like, ‘Oh wait, this my shit, I run this!’”
Coming into a new year, and a new presidency, Stenberg says she hopes that, at the absolute least, there is less reason for anxiety in her communities. She adds that this might make it easier for all of us to agitate around those issues that she is so deeply invested in. “I hope it gives us some mental space to be able to organize better, love each other better, do better.”
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