5 things you should probably know about Amandla Stenberg
Amanda Parris interviewed the rising star in Toronto last week, and now she's dishing on the highlights
Amandla Stenberg was in Toronto last week as part of the TIFF Next Wave Festival, and I had the honour of interviewing the actor, musician, filmmaker and activist live on stage.
Our conversation traversed much of Stenberg's career, from her star-making turn in The Hunger Games to the mic-dropping viral video hit, "Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows," and I got to know a lot about this inspiring individual.
Just 19, just about everything's been written about Stenberg, but here are five new things I learned during our conversation.
What was she doing after Hunger Games? Waiting for a half-way decent role for a Black girl
Following the huge success of The Hunger Games in 2012, Stenberg should have been one of the most in-demand young actresses in Hollywood, but she took a small break from the industry after its release.
That wasn't a choice, she says. It was a matter of circumstance.
I can only do something with my full heart invested or just not do it at all.- Amandla Stenberg, actress
The roles sent her way lacked the complexity she desired. Even at the age of 12, Stenberg was determined not to compromise. She was going to play nuanced characters that resist stereotypes.
"I'm just someone who cannot fake it. I can only do something with my full heart invested or just not do it at all."
"I was really young, I still am really young and it's not a race. I didn't feel like I had to be working all the time just to prove that I could work. I still have a lot of time. You don't have to force your career to happen all at once. "
"I also just like to play characters that I believe in, that are three-dimensional, that I think are worth it."
"I don't really want to have to diminish myself to something less nuanced or less authentic just because those roles don't normally exist for someone like me."
What's the best way to navigate Hollywood? Be an 'infiltrator'
On stage, Stenberg said she once asked her friend and mentor Solange Knowles for advice: "Girl, how do I navigate these white institutions?"
Her answer: "I got you. Here's the tea: be sneaky."
Stenberg's personal sensibilities don't necessarily align with popular culture, so she's decided to see herself as an infiltrator. She uses her access to mainstream spaces as an opportunity to knock down doors.
"There are certain people who have really strong convictions about what type of work they want to make, what type of spaces they want to inhabit and are very against corporations, but I feel like I've been put in this unique position."
"Corporations feel like I have a mainstream appeal and they're interested in working with me yet I can understand the other side, I can 'see both sides like Chanel.'"
"Because I'm in that position, I feel like it's almost a responsibility of mine to utilize that in a way. [...] When presented with the opportunity of doing something that is more mainstream but with a Black girl and other Black girls get to see that [...] it feels to me like if I can take those opportunities then take them because of the potential doors that it can open for a lot of young actors of colour."
When 'Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows' blew up it was a total shock
It was just an assignment for history class, but when Stenberg shared "Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows" on Tumblr, the video went viral. (As of writing it has more than 2 million views on YouTube.)
Brilliantly simple and clearly articulated, the four-minute video sparked an important public conversation on the issue of cultural appropriation, but the response was overwhelming. It also placed the young artist in a lot of hot water.
I could never have guessed that this video from my history class would start an 'online feud.'- Amandla Stenberg, actress
"It was really cool but it was also really scary. I obviously did a lot of an in-depth research for the piece, but I could never have guessed that this video from my history class would start like an 'online feud' — not a real one, but like an online feud between me and Taylor Swift just because I dropped a clip of her in there."
"I wasn't necessarily trying to come for particular people, but of course that's how press and media like to skew things because it's more clickbait-y. But I had no idea it was going to start any kind of conversation and that was really gratifying."
She walked away from a part in Black Panther
Diversity in Hollywood is a big topic. Another related issue is that of shadeism/colourism, and as some pop culture critics have recently noted, when there are roles for younger, Black women, it's biracial actresses and/or women with a lighter skin tone who are cast.
Stenberg is biracial, and I asked her how she balanced the importance of taking up space within the context of this conversation. She shared that it's something she has thought a lot about, and it led to her pulling out of one of the biggest movies this year.
"One of the most challenging things for me to do was to walk away from Black Panther. I got really, really close and they were like, 'do you want to continue fighting for this?' And I was like, this isn't right."
"These are all dark skin actors playing Africans and I feel like it would have just been off to see m as a bi-racial American with a Nigerian accent just pretending that I'm the same colour as everyone else in the movie."
"That was really challenging, to make that decision, but I have no regrets. I recognize 100 per cent that there are spaces that I should not take up and when I do take up a space it's because I've thought really, really critically about it and I've consulted people I really trust and it feels right."
Working on Beyoncé's Lemonade was as epic and incredible as you could ever imagine
Stenberg was one of several Black women who won the lottery in 2016 when she was handpicked by Beyoncé to appear in Lemonade. She dished on the making of the top secret project.
"First of all I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm a part of the FBI now' because it was so locked down, like [you] cannot tell anyone."
"I could not tell my best friend, who is the biggest Beyoncé fan on the planet, I could not tell her where I was going, what I was doing. […] We didn't even know what it was when we were there. We were not told what it was. We were not told the name. We were not told if it was one music video or an entire visual album."
"We started to piece it together, obviously, while we were there, but it was like only the information that was needed was told. That's the only way Beyonce can make things, I'm guessing.'
"We shot it on a former slave plantation, so there was something really powerful and beautiful about reclaiming the land and shooting there and just bathing the entire space with the energy of reclamation like knowing that a group of Black women coming together to make a really important piece of art. So that was really amazing."
"Me and Zendaya were up in this tree and we had to pee so bad, like so bad. We both were just like, 'Only for Beyoncé.' So whenever I see that shot where we're in the tree where we're looking really serious, we're really just trying not to pee."