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The Education of Amandla Stenberg

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — There are roles certain actors seem born to play — an echo of facial symmetry, a rhyming of demeanor — and then there is Starr Carter, the high school junior of “The Hate U Give,” and Amandla Stenberg, the young actress who seems to embody her almost from sense memory, as if the performance is actually self portraiture.

In a way, it is. Both Ms. Stenberg and her fictional counterpart shuttled between a lower-income black neighborhood and a wealthy white private school, beginning at the age of 10. Both were shaped by the mental gymnastics of traversing the two worlds, each of which seemed to require a distinct conception of self. And both were eventually jolted out of their youthful naïveté by the same grimly modern rite of passage — the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer.

In the novel on which the film is based, which dramatizes some of the events that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement, Starr’s seamless shifting between identities, or code switching, masks an internal sense of isolation and chaos that particularly moved Ms. Stenberg, 19, who grew up in black and Latino South Los Angeles and attended school in a white Westside neighborhood.

“There was this barrier that was always going to prevent me from being a part of that community in the same way that those kids were,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I learned to be silent about certain factors of my life, like struggles with money. While other kids talked about all the things they did and places they traveled over summer break, my friends and I mostly kept to ourselves.”

Ms. Stenberg spoke over walnut shrimp at a West Hollywood Chinese restaurant and hole-in-the-wall music venue — an old haunt. Her hair was a bouquet of black phone-cord curls that she swept to one side, and she was wearing a houndstooth jumpsuit, its neutral tone framed by the blare of the restaurant’s fire-engine-red leather banquettes.

She is the beating heart and battered soul of “The Hate U Give,” a searing and timely family drama and coming-of-age story, in theaters Oct. 19, that trails the toppled dominoes of systemic racism in a nominally integrated fictional town.

[Add this fall’s most anticipated cultural events to your calendar.]

Like other socially minded films this year, including “BlacKkKlansman” and “Blindspotting,” “The Hate U Give” sees raw material in the magma of still-smoldering news headlines and social media hashtags. But Ms. Stenberg’s star turn does the most critical load bearing, somehow channeling an emerging generation’s inchoate rage, grief and resilience into one recognizably human form.

“She has this ability to make you feel like you’re seeing the real deal, which comes from a level of dedication to the material that’s rare at any age,” the film’s director, George Tillman Jr., said in a phone interview. “I was already excited by the work I’d seen from her, but it’s even more exciting to think about the work she’s yet to do.”

Ms. Stenberg, who graduated from high school only last year, has been acting nearly her entire life, a fact she attributes to a childhood spent in a community where auditions were a standard-issue extracurricular activity, alongside tap dancing and gymnastics. She landed her first acting gig at 5, as a blurry but effusive girl in the background of a doll commercial. By 12, she had appeared in her first film, playing a young Zoe Saldana in the 2011 action thriller “Colombiana.” A role the next year in “The Hunger Games,” as Rue, the plucky and diminutive ally to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, put her on the map.

“The Hunger Games” was an early education in both the boon of celebrity and its hazards. Even as critics praised her performance, Ms. Stenberg, whose mother is African-American and father is Dutch, became the subject of a now familiar strain of racist internet backlash, in which some fans of the novel noxiously objected to the casting of a person of color. (Rue is described in the original novel as having “dark brown skin.”) It was her first encounter with explicit racism, an experience that, along with more subtle displays of prejudice at her private school in Los Angeles, shaded her perception of hidden forces in society.

“I felt alone in it, or isolated by it,” she said. “It made me feel like it was better to become smaller, or quieter, or less obtrusive or something.”

In 2014, she was an incoming high school junior during the summer Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Shortly before, Eric Garner had died in a violent encounter with the police in New York City, and the resulting cascade of protests, demanding police reform and calling out racial injustice, clanged in her head like an alarm.

“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 said. “It made me feel like I could do something, or, at least try to inform people.”

For a project in her modern American history class that year, she and a classmate had to trace the history of an American artifact over a decade. They chose cornrows, the traditional African-American hairstyle, which had been the subject of a recent Marie Claire article hailing Kendall Jenner as a pioneer.

In Ms. Stenberg’s finished project, a video titled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” she contrasted the celebration of black cultural products with the denigration of black bodies. Some of her white classmates gave it a cool welcome. “They thought it was unfair and in some ways attacked white people,” she said.

But, a few months later, she posted the video on her Tumblr account, where it quickly went viral.

BuzzFeed called it “the realest explanation of cultural appropriation.” NBC News said it was “an authoritative history lesson on black culture.” Ms. Stenberg, who speaks in scrupulous, quasi-academic paragraphs, continued to use her social media as a megaphone, especially in defense of Black Lives Matter, or to denounce what she saw as the collateral indignities of the patriarchy. After the 2016 election (a photo of her perched on a street sign at the Women’s March made headlines), she wrote to her nearly two million followers on Instagram that President Trump’s victory was “evidence that we are rapidly shifting the narrative, changing our cultural climate, and demanding equality — and that is a terrifying and immediate threat to white privilege.”

Time magazine twice selected her as one of the most influential teenagers in the world; she was cheered by such feminist matriarchs as Oprah, Gloria Steinem and Beyoncé; and Ms. Stenberg, along with friends and fellow actresses like Rowan Blanchard, Yara Shahidi and Zendaya, became synonymous with a genus of progressive young celebrities whose incipient fame was as much a product of dexterous social advocacy as red carpet appearances or box office receipts.

At the Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood, 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.”

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.”

The smartphone hiatus ended in January — the lack of reliable mobile email proved terminal — and she’s resumed posting regularly to her accounts. But the composition of the posts has changed. Ms. Stenberg now largely uses her Instagram for more lighthearted content (“I’m slowly turning it into a meme account,” she joked) or to fulfill work and social obligations, of which there is no shortage.

“‘Why don’t you post pictures of me? Why don’t you post a photo from this shoot? Did she post a video of the teaser that we just made?’” she said, parroting a few common requests. Recently, she self-mockingly renamed her account “amandlasponsored.” “It all feels kind of absurd to me,” she said.

A few personal pictures still remain, including some of her girlfriend, the ascendant pop singer-songwriter Mikaela Straus, who records under the name King Princess. The two met at a music industry party (in addition to acting, Ms. Stenberg sings and plays multiple instruments) and quickly bonded.

Though she had come out as bisexual at 17, Ms. Stenberg announced that she was gay in a June interview in Wonderland magazine, for which Ms. Straus served as interlocutor. “I was so overcome with this profound sense of relief when I realized that I’m gay — not bi, not pan, but gay — with a romantic love for women,” she said at the time.

Some criticized her shifting conception of her sexuality as evidence of phoniness. In our interview, Ms. Stenberg said she had simply wanted to be transparent about her journey, both for her own peace of mind and for the sake of others going through similar experiences. But she added that her words shouldn’t be taken as written in stone.

“Will I change? Could my ideas about who I am and my sexuality and gender shift in the future? Very much so. It’s very likely that it could. And I think that’s O.K.,” she said. “I’m not tied to the idea that everything I say has to be given so much weight. But I hope that it makes people feel less alone.”

These days, Ms. Stenberg wants people to judge her for the work she does onscreen. That, too, is another plank of her activism, one she is approaching with characteristic intentionality. She accepted her role in “The Darkest Minds,” she said, to “infiltrate systems that have traditionally been owned by white people.” And she can currently be seen in “Where Hands Touch,” a provocative, 1940s love story about a young biracial woman and a member of the Hitler Youth. (It was preceded by its own brush fire, with some commenters online objecting to the idea of a Nazi romance).

By unifying her creative and political ambitions, Ms. Stenberg has fueled the potential for both self-expression and self-exposure. That the two are inextricable can be bruising. But it can also be a source of strength.

“I hope I always make work that is reflective of what I believe in,” she said. “If art isn’t personal, then it doesn’t speak to me.”


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