Amandla Stenberg believes in fantasy. Growing up behind the magic curtain, on the set of The Hunger Games (2012) and TV shows like Sleepy Hollow, Stenberg saw, up close, the genre's power for world-building—and got to see how those worlds were actually built. Now, at 17, she's taking some of what she learned and looking to spend more of her time behind the camera, enrolling in New York University's prestigious film school in the fall. Because, as one of the most dynamic and outspoken actresses of her generation, Stenberg also believes in reality and feels the need to use film and fantasy, as well as social media and anything else at her disposal, to get more diversity in media, to build safer spaces and more political agency for people her age, for people of color, and for people of the LGBTQ community. Because, for some reason, Stenberg also really believes in the future. (And she may be a little bit magic.)
INTERVIEW: Congratulations on getting in to NYU film school. Is that something you've always been interested in doing?
AMANDLA STENBERG: Definitely. I mean, I've pretty much grown up on set, and my favorite part about it is being able to actually see how movies are made. I knew when I was about 14 that I wanted to be a director and that I wanted to go to NYU for film school. It kind of feels like it's been a long time coming. [laughs] It's a relief to actually be in, because the college process is so hyped-up.
INTERVIEW: As someone who's grown up in front of a camera, has the ability to play different roles helped you to access parts of identity? Has acting helped with your self-actualizing? Or is it just fun escapism?
STENBERG: I think there are two sides of the coin. On one hand, it can be challenging to access different parts of yourself, and you kind of have to put yourself back into reality when you're done with the job. But I think it's also really cool to have the ability to try on being different people and to explore some parts of yourself because you get to know yourself better. You get to know parts of yourself that you haven't met before. I think that's something that I've been learning more recently. There's this poet, Nayyirah Waheed, and she has this poem that goes, "there / are / feelings. / you haven't felt yet. / give them time. / they are almost here." And that's something I am continuously trying to remember. Because I think when we're growing up and being teenagers, oftentimes you try so hard to define yourself. You try to create an image of yourself because you don't really know who you are yet. And that can be kind of limiting because you forget that there are actually so many different sides of identity. And it's important to recognize that everyone is completely different. Everyone experiences different parts of themselves at different times, these different parts of themselves that come out in different settings.
INTERVIEW: Well, yeah. None of us has any idea what we're doing. We're all just sort of figuring it out on the run. [both laugh]
STENBERG: Exactly. And I think part of growing up is not actually finding a fixed idea of who you are, but rather being like, "Oh, wait. I'm different all the time. I'm going to change every second and grow and be fluid." And that's okay.
INTERVIEW: I know you love fantasy—you've co-written a comic book! Fantasy is not just the escapism; it's also a way to postulate alternate realities. Like, what if things were like this?
STENBERG: There's so much power in allegory, to form ideas and learn lessons that you can actually take and apply to real life. I think that's why I originally really loved fantasy and reading. My favorite books when I was younger—books like the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings—I could actually see them reflected in my life.
INTERVIEW: What do you think about #OscarsSoWhite?
STENBERG: There are some really valid things in what Jada Pinkett Smith said. I'm really passionate about representation in film. I feel like the world is dominated by such a small group of human beings. There are so many different kinds of people that aren't represented, that don't have characters who look like them. And that's one of the reasons why I intend on being a director, because I want to actually tell some of these stories. I also think that we place such intense emphasis on award shows when they're not necessarily the best reflection of how good the work is. We need to realize that art and creation are so much bigger than an award or any measure of accomplishment.
INTERVIEW: Certainly. One of the reasons why I think that this tiny group of people has been dominant over our culture for however many thousands of years is because of the stories that we've received and accepted. So, others having access to the storytelling apparatus is a way that we can undo some of that.
STENBERG: Yeah. There are so many different ways to make art. And so many good stories. You don't have to have a budget. I feel like it's super possible these days for people to make anything, no matter who you are or where you come from. And that's really exciting. I'm excited to see people around me pushing boundaries in that way, not letting certain structures define them or what art they can make.
INTERVIEW: I'm so glad to see you pushing boundaries and using your voice to create a broader and broader platform for discussion. But I wonder, do you worry about being tagged the conscious actress and director? Do you worry about tokenism in the media?
STENBERG: It's definitely something I think about. Yes, there's something dangerous about turning people into token social activists. I was thinking about this recently with our pop-culture feminism, when feminism is such a buzzword in the media now. We're covering it in a way that we haven't before, but also in a way that's way more surface level. And while I think that there's some danger in that, I also think it's a great gateway for some people. It introduces people to that world so much faster and so much more easily than ever before. And, yes, I do definitely get boxed into this #BlackGirlMagic social activist category. But it makes me think, "Well, maybe people are able to start thinking about that concept earlier and will hopefully be inspired to delve deeper into it and research it more." I think that's just how the media works. It's just very good at compartmentalizing human beings.
INTERVIEW: Part of your problem is that you're very good at this. You speak in a way that people really respond to. So what first compelled you to speak and behave as some typical sexy young ingénue? [both laugh] Aside from, obviously, ew.
STENBERG: Well, first of all, I don't really see myself that way. I've never been that way. And, for a while, there was a disconnect between who I am and how I present myself on a public platform. That was because I didn't necessarily feel comfortable sharing that much of myself with other people who I didn't know. But then I accidentally did when I made that video essay called "Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows." I made it for my history class and shared it on Tumblr, and it went viral. I came to a crossroads where I was like, "Do I continue speaking on the internet about these things that I used to only speak about with my friends and my family and my classmates? Or do I keep those ideas to myself?" I felt scared, because there's some risk in it. There's backlash and a lot of dumb comments. But I'm not opposed to conversation. I'm just opposed to ignorance and prejudice. But I knew I'd be facing that. And then I realized, if I didn't end up talking about the things that I care about, I wouldn't be myself. I didn't like the idea that I would be a different person on the internet than I would be in real life. And I see people struggling. I see people who face prejudice and people who feel invisible. And I recognize that I already have a built-in platform that I can utilize so easily to actually do something.
INTERVIEW: It's interesting how making the personal public is a political act. Like, you've talked a little bit about your sexuality, and that becomes a political statement.
INTERVIEW: But you handled it with such ease and sort of comfort, which is also political—leading by example. Like, we don't need to be so heavy-footed when we are talking about sexuality and gender and race. It just seems to come very easily to you. Does that come with a lot of education? Or is that because you're speaking naturally?
STENBERG: I think it comes because I'm speaking naturally. I mean, unfortunately or not unfortunately, take it as you will, when you are a marginalized person or a woman of color and/or someone who's a part of the LGBTQ community, your acts become politicized, just by being yourself. Because we're not completely accepting of all different kinds of human beings. So that's been an interesting dynamic for me to navigate. [laughs] By being myself, I'm doing something political.
INTERVIEW: And beyond the backlash, I'm sure that you must hear some very positive noise from people for whom you are making a more bearable or positive experience.
STENBERG: Yeah. That's what inspires me to continue talking about things I care about. And realizing that the people who criticize what I'm doing, their intentions and comments are not actually real. [laughs] There's nothing really tangible about them. They're just destructive. There's nothing happening in the real world outside of whatever they're writing on the internet. Whereas for the people who feel inspired by what I'm doing, there's something so concrete and powerful in what's happening when they feel empowered. There's actually some kind of growth or self-acceptance, some kind of self-love that's actually being triggered, hopefully. And that's real. So I think I'm continuously playing this game of what's real and what's not real, and having to balance and judge and realize that there are things that carry real weight in the world and actually have power in them. And there are things that are just pointless, and you don't have to pay attention to those things. Like, people think I'm plotting. I've received that scrutiny.
INTERVIEW: Well, I actually did see someone tweet something like, "I hope it's not your politics that made you come out as bi." [both laugh] The world is a really weird place.
STENBERG: But that's how intersectionality works. I oftentimes receive the question, "What do you think is the most important social issue to focus on?" Or, "What's the most important component of identity? Is it gay rights or race or feminism?" And I'm like, "Well, they're all intertwined. It's all one conversation at the end of the day. You can't just pick one." I mean, people experience all kinds of prejudice because of all different parts of themselves. And that doesn't make one part more important than the other. We live in a society that does not openly accept every kind of human being. And so the result is when you are yourself and someone who's marginalized, it becomes a revolutionary act—just being comfortable in your own body and being comfortable speaking, sharing your ideas. It's really amazing and also, like, kind of sad. [laughs] I hope one day it's not revolutionary just to be yourself, but I think that the work that's being done around identity and personhood is so important. I feel inspired by people around me who are part of this movement as well: Hari Nef and Rowan Blanchard and Willow Smith and these kids who are really not going to listen to anyone. "I'm just going to say whatever I feel. I'm going to be myself. And if you don't like it, then, you can go screw yourself." [both laugh]
INTERVIEW: There's definitely a best-of-times thing going on here. But then we also have, like, "Donald Trump for president." It's so confusing. Is this the best of times or the worst of times?
STENBERG: Right. Honestly, that's kind of mind-blowing to me. I think there's this great disconnect between youth culture and politics, which is a product of how our capitalist system works. I mean, a lot of the kids I know are really politically involved. They really care about politics. They care about who the president is going to be. And so, I guess we'll see very soon. I think we're going to have an incredible impact on how politics end up shaking this country.
For more from The New Activists, click here.
lot of the kids I know are really politically involved. . . we're going to have an incredible impact on how politics end up shaping this country. —Amandla Stenberg