Amandla Stenberg On Integrating Activism Into Her Career

By Sameer Rao Sep 12, 2018

The backlash to Amandla Stenberg‘s casting in "The Hunger Games" offered the young actress an education in the racism actresses of color often face when they’re cast in a popular franchise adaptation. The 19-year-old star of "The Hate U Give" told The New York Times‘ Reggie Ugwu yesterday (September 11) that that experience, and the more subtle racism she endured at her Los Angeles prep school, left her feeling "like it was better to become smaller, or quieter, or less obtrusive or something.”

rntThe rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of police officers killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner inspired Stenberg, then entering the 11th grade, to reconsider her creative priorities.

“Recognizing those events for what they were and seeing everyone make the choice to stand up against it completely informed what I cared about and what I felt my point was as an artist,” she recalls. “It made me feel like I could do something, or, at least try to inform people.”

That decision inspires Stenberg’s career choices, including her leading role in the upcoming film adaptation of "The Hate U Give," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday (September 7). Ugwu shares the following example from their conversation:


At the Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood [where we met], she excused herself from a photo shoot to take a phone call from her agent. He was excited by a sponsorship offer from a large fashion company, she said later, and urged her to consider “a great opportunity.” But Ms. Stenberg had dismissed the offer out of principle.


“I feel like fashion is kind of the epitome of a White institution that you have to mold yourself in order to fit into,” she said. “I’m less interested in doing that now.”

While Stenberg once carried these priorities into her social media use, she has changed her approach in an attempt to protect her mental health:


For a six-month period in 2017, during which she filmed both “The Hate U Give” and “The Darkest Minds,” a “Hunger Games”-esque young adult fantasy film released in August, she gave up her iPhone for an antiquated Samsung slider and stepped back from social media. She hadn’t liked the effect that constant connection was having on her brain. Her thoughts seemed to be “constantly buzzing around and not really landing anywhere.” And at night, between the time she put down her phone and fell asleep, she felt a twitchy sense of chaos in the darkness.


Her online experience at the time had chafed, as well. Seemingly every day, torrid brush fires in the post-Trump culture war, or, more grievously, life or death miscarriages of criminal justice, materialized in her feeds. Because of her reputation, Ms. Stenberg had felt as if her followers expected her to contribute to each uproar, with note-perfect nuance and indignation. Her social media accounts, once tools of self-discovery and free expression, had become like chains of her own design.


“There was this precedent for how people expected me to act on the internet, this image that I’m supposed to fulfill,” she said. “People think of me as a revolutionary or someone who is very inclined toward activism, and although activism is the driving force behind all of my work, it creates this impression of seriousness or that I won’t make mistakes, and that’s daunting, because I’m not always serious, and of course I’ll make mistakes.”