Amanda Stenberg born on 23 October 1998, the actress most famous for portraying Rue in “The Hunger Games,” asks some serious questions in a YouTube video about appropriation of black culture into the mainstream. “Pop stars… adopted black culture as a way of being edgy and gaining attention,” she says according to W Dish. Among others, she points out Perry’s ebonics in the “This Is How We Do” video and Miley Cyrus’s twerking in “We Can’t Stop.”
As one of the only biracial young actresses on studio short lists, Amandla Stenberg feels the pressure to do the right thing. When Marvel came knocking for “Black Panther” a few years ago, Stenberg agreed to an audition. But she eventually chose not to pursue the role of Shuri, because she believed a darker-skinned actress should play the breakout part that went to Letitia Wright.
“That was not a space that I should have taken up,” says Stenberg,. “And it was so exhilarating to see it fulfilled by people who should have been a part of it and who deserved it and who were right for it. I just wasn’t.”
Stenberg knows something about big-screen blockbusters. At 14, she portrayed the fan-favorite Rue in “The Hunger Games.” “It was all a dream come true,” she says.
“As a kid, it was my favorite book.” She recently saw co-star Jennifer Lawrence at a breakfast event. “She said, ‘Oh, my God, you have boobs!’” Stenberg recalls with a laugh.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve gone through puberty since I last saw you.’ We don’t stay in touch necessarily in the way we used to. But she will definitely always remain as a big-sister figure to me, just because she was so endlessly sweet to me when I was a kid and made me feel comfortable in a space that was intimidating.”
Diverse and nuanced representation on-screen is what guides Stenberg’s business decisions. She signed up for the teen thriller “The Darkest Minds,” which is currently in theaters, because she thought it was important to have a new take on the young-adult dystopian genre. “The character was written white,” she says. “It was exciting for me to have a black girl at the helm, because we’ve seen these with Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley, and they’ve done a fantastic job. But we’ve never gotten diverse representation.”
Her memories of working on movie sets are generally positive, even though she concedes she has experienced moments of racism and sexism in the industry. “I can speak to certain events, but I don’t necessarily want to,” she says.
Stenberg is hopeful about the change she’s witnessing with the industry’s recent wave of inclusive storytelling — from “Black Panther” to “Crazy Rich Asians,” both box office successes. “As a kid, it was nearly impossible for me to find roles that felt empowered, that were not victim roles, that were fully dimensional, that didn’t serve any white male plotline,” she says. “So I worked less because I had no interest in doing something that would force me to compromise my own power or just make myself subservient to something I didn’t necessarily mesh with.”
She’s motivated to work on projects that open more doors for women of color. She talks about how the media often lumps her in with two other biracial actresses, Yara Shahidi (“Grown-ish”) and Zendaya (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”). “Something interesting has happened with me and Yara and Zendaya — there is a level of accessibility of being biracial that has afforded us attention in a way that I don’t think would have been afforded to us otherwise,” Stenberg says. “Me and Yara and Zendaya are perceived in the same way, I guess, because we are lighter-skinned black girls and we fill this interesting place of being accessible to Hollywood and accessible to white people in a way that darker-skinned girls are not afforded the same privilege.”
Stenberg’s first name means “power” in Zulu. In grade school, she appeared in dozens of commercials and in productions of “Grease” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” At 12, she delivered a speech with Cicely Tyson at the 2011 dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her assured voice caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who invited Stenberg to speak at her SuperSoul Sessions in 2016. The year before, the Ms. Foundation for Women named her a Feminist Celebrity of the Year.
“We grew up underneath Obama, and that afforded us the ability to approach the world with so much optimism, and I think that optimism is what fueled me being vocal about so many things that I cared about at first,” Stenberg says. “And then, after Trump was elected, I went through a period of disillusionment where I felt powerless and I didn’t understand how I could continue to use my platform under this current administration. Now, I’m realizing that the most powerful thing you can do is be yourself and express joy and incite joy in others, so I feel more compelled than ever to do that.”
Stenberg has her eyes on writing, directing and even a music career — she plays violin, guitar and drums. She popped up in Beyoncé’s 2016 “Lemonade” visual album. Queen Bey was the first artist she saw perform in concert, when she was 6. “It made me feel like nothing else had before,” she says. “It made me feel like I can do that. I can be that confident, razor-sharp, talented, efficient, loving and profound all at once.”
Stenberg isn’t one to shy away from her true self. Three years ago, she came out as bisexual. This summer, in an interview with her girlfriend, the singer-songwriter King Princess, she identified as gay. “I wanted to be transparent about who I was and stand with pride and hopefully, through that, make other people feel proud of their identities,” she says. “There was definitely a little bit of nerves, but I’m lucky to grow up in an environment where I don’t have to feel repercussions for being myself and I can feel comfortable exploring and finding my truth. I wasn’t afraid because I had a lot of support around me.”
When she was younger, she cited Leonardo DiCaprio as her favorite heartthrob. “I think that might have shifted,” she says. “That was my movie crush. I have many girl crushes because I’m gay.”
Stenberg is a staunch supporter of the Time’s Up movement, and she marvels at the sisterhood that has blossomed across the Hollywood community over the past year. She recently lobbied her agents, successfully demanding that the projects that she signs on to are supported by 50/50 by 2020. That’s the idea that within two years, 50% of crew members on sets will be female and nonwhite.
“I’ve been acting since I was a very little kid, so I have been aware of how the industry works,” Stenberg says. “We’re at a turning point, but we have by no means fixed the misogyny of Hollywood or white patriarchy. But in terms of how we diversify our sets and diversify our on-screen narratives, I definitely think it’s a great time of change.”
Stenberg jokes that she’s more than her talking points. “I’m, like, a three-dimensional whole-ass person!” But like most teens, she is still figuring out exactly who that person is. Part of that meant coming out to the world—and herself—as gay. “That’s what I strive for in terms of being [visible] for black girls [and] marginalized people who don’t get representation for themselves in the media,” she says. It’s different when you have millions of fans watching, but that’s not her primary concern: “If that has any sort of political weight or social weight, that’s fantastic,” she says. “There could be moments or periods of time where it has none, and that would also be fantastic.” She doesn’t need to share her whole life with the world—sometimes she just wants to like memes on her private Instagram.
And while she calls social media a double-edged sword, she also recognizes how critical it’s been in helping people like her feel seen. “When social media first started popping up, it was really exciting because for the first time, we weren’t dependent on white institutions to afford us platforms of representation,” she says. “A few years later, you see the effects in Hollywood, in the diversity that’s finally being portrayed onscreen.”
“I’ve had to unlearn a lot, and I’m still unlearning things. I hated my hair growing up—I thought it was ugly. By the time I got to high school, I was using a relaxer. But when I was 16, I chopped off all the dead hair and started wearing it natural, and I realized that it was so beautiful and cool and versatile! Anti-black beauty standards are so pervasive. Fighting that requires constant unpacking and positive self-messaging, so of course I still have my moments when I feel insecure. But in those moments, I’m always [inspired] by the fact that being black is just so poppin’. The perspective, the culture, the family, the food…I love everything about being black.”
- Amandla Stenberg Biography and Profile