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In Conversation with Amandla Stenberg at The TIFF Bell Lightbox

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Toronto MU chapter.

 By: Shauna Mazenes

Amandla Stenberg, commonly known for her role as Rue in the first Hunger Games movie, is challenging the entertainment industry and initiating social change by liberating herself as a political activist in her films. She has been creating innovative content since she was a child ranging from homemade iMovies and comic books, to designing logos and even creating PSAs. Her work now as an educated and informed actress is a creative manifestation of her political perspective. The content she has been producing from childhood up to the present day has been seen as action to help shape a radically inclusive future.

When asked about why she took time away from film after breaking countless hearts with her breathtaking performance in The Hunger Games, she responds lightly.

“Oh, that wasn’t a choice!”

She goes on to say that she took a break from acting in part to finish school but also because she didn’t want to force the process.

“The roles didn’t exist, and I didn’t want to force them… You don’t have to force your career to happen all at once.”

She says it’s not in her character to take roles that stereotypically exploit black girls, and that this is a common reality in the film industry for many black artists.

“I’m someone who cannot fake it,” she says. “I’m only someone who can do something with my whole heart invested.”

What was once a school assignment, Amandla posted a video on Tumblr titled Don’t Cash Call My Cornrows, explaining the offence behind culturally appropriating black culture, specifically focusing on celebrities and influences in the media with inappropriate cornrows or braids. The video blew up, gaining word-wide attention and even landing her in a Twitter battle with Taylor Swift, commencing her journey as a publicly recognized social activist.

Amandla expresses how important it’s to stand as a mentor for other black women in her work, and won’t accept roles that don’t wholesomely reflect her values as a bi-racial, bi-sexual woman challenging the white and privileged world of Hollywood. Amandla has been praised by many powerful females on the world stage; Miss Foundation named her Feminist Celebrity of 2018, Time Magazine has named her most influential teen more than once, “Auntie Opera” asked her to star in a Super Soul segment, and Beyoncé has said that she hopes her daughter grows up to be just like Amandla one day.

“I do a lot of my work because I want to see things change,” she says.

Amandla explains the difficulties of identity fluidity as a young actress growing up in the limelight whose internal life was subject to social networks, such as Twitter. As a bisexual teenager who doesn’t believe in labels or westernized notions of gender, she explains how social media exposure intensified criticism of her sexual identity, and in the process, assisted in reinforcing the rigid gender-binary.

“I am bisexual or I am ‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘Z’ parts of my identity, and it’s in no way some sort of political statement,” she explains. “It’s just who I am.”

In explaining how it’s not always necessary to make a political statement about your personal identity, she exemplifies how she willingly walked away from the Black Panther, as it had racial implications that didn’t hold true to her. She says it didn’t feel organic to her to portray herself as a Black Panther from the 1960s political movement, when she herself is bi-racial and should allow a black woman to fill that space. 

“It was really challenging to make that decision, but I have no regrets about that. I recognize 100% that there are spaces I cannot take up.”

As an informed and educated actress thriving in an era where political activism is considered “cool”, she has witnessed brands attempt to exploit black actors and actresses around stereotypical notions of race, gender and sexual orientation.

“I’ve been on sets where there are black people in the movie, but every single person on the other side is white. The producer is white, all the crew members are white. Those spaces don’t feel safe for people of colour on set… Are you about this message and are you exercising it in all facets?” she explains.

She says working on films with black creators in comparison to white producers makes for a completely different environment on the set. She explains how when working with black artists, she feels safe, supported and understood, “It doesn’t feel like I’m being fetishized or exploited… And it’s empowering.”

Her number one goal as a political activist and a creator is to fight for the safety of marginalized people; this entails safety from violence, police brutality, racism, safety from reduction and alienation. She feels the first foundational steps to achieving this is by understanding that everyone in the world is a human with real human rights.

“Right now I’m kind of focused on us being seen as human. I feel like that’s why entertainment is really important to me. Film is really important to me. Not just because I love films, but because of the social power that it has,” she explains. “We’re so obsessed with celebrities and movies, and oftentimes they have real power to influence our political decisions as well.”

The Hate U Give, a highly anticipated movie based on a book about police brutality, was an honour for Amandla to be casted in.

“To think about what it can be like for the community of the people who are killed by police, to see them and their stories fully represented can be powerful in making these issues feel real to everyone.”

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