Amandla Stenberg’s handshake has a degree of firmness that I’ve come to associate with a trustworthy person. I feel an almost embarrassing sensation of familiarity looking at her face. Logically, I know this is because I spent three hours of my Friday night watching a pre-release screening of her two upcoming films, The Darkest Minds and The Hate U Give, but my brain tricks me into that comfort of recognition reserved for one’s fondest acquaintances.
She is just as striking in three dimensions. Her short hair and cherubic features lend 19-year-old Stenberg an air of tomboyish grace; walking with her hands in her jean pockets, she exudes the debonair femininity of a Titanic-era Leo.
Together, we walk out of the bustling preparations for her photoshoot and into the dry July heat of Highland Avenue. In line at the nearest coffee shop, Stenberg indulges my attempts at small talk as our orders are being processed by a particularly testy iPad. I mention the single time we crossed paths before this afternoon. “Were you at that Paul Simon concert at the Hollywood Bowl?” Thankfully, there is a glint of recognition, “Yes, I went with my mom!” Relieved, I continue, “I was sitting behind you, and we were both sitting behind Meryl Streep.” She laughs, “Yes! She kept lovingly patting her son’s back. I couldn’t stop staring at her hands. They were so strong and feminine!” Our shared view of Meryl’s hands upstaged most of my memory of ‘You Can Call Me Al’. She adds, “My mom and I agreed, that was the whitest crowd we’d ever seen.”
Now seated in the back patio, she tears the corner off her strawberry-rhubarb pastry and we pick apart the cultural symbolism in The Darkest Minds. In a dystopian tale set in a forebodingly contemporary America, an autoimmune disease sweeps the nation, causing the immediate death of 98% of America’s children. Those that survive possess varying levels of supernatural powers and are placed in “rehabilitation camps” by the US government. It is a classic ‘hero’ tale, following 16-year- old Ruby Daly (Stenberg), who escapes her camp and slowly learns how to harness her unique power. With the ability to control minds, Ruby’s power is manifest in glowing orange eyes and a Stranger-Things- esque telekinetic stare (sans nose bleed). “There was a lot of ‘eye’ acting in that movie,” I mention. Laughing, she nods, “A whole lot of eye acting!” She turns her head abruptly, starring straight into my soul with Ruby’s piercing gaze.
As a veteran of The Hunger Games, Stenberg is no stranger to the teens-versus-obscenely-cruel-(overtly-child-abusive)-government film formula. At only 13 years old, her casting as Katniss’s pal Rue was met with an onslaught of racist internet comments. Six years later, as the protagonist of a promising young adult franchise, Stenberg is emerging victorious. “We’ve seen these young adult dystopian series before but we’ve only seen it with Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley. I was flabbergasted at the idea that they were even interested in casting me because it was based on a book series that, I think you assume upon reading, is written as white.” The Darkest Minds offers a more nuanced critique of contemporary politics. Stenberg explains, “the movie starts with Ruby being separated from her parents and being put into camps, which is jarringly relevant to what is happening now. Hopefully that storyline can add a bit of humanization or accessibility to people who don’t care about our central American children.” Although the film is fantasy, it bears a sobering resemblance to the state of contemporary politics, particularly regarding an all too familiar generational fear. “These children have the ability to access this special part of themselves and adults respond to that with fear and violence.” She continues, “It’s something that so many of us are facing right now, understanding how we can harness our own tools like social media. Not to approach it with fear, but instead learn how to face a regime that we don’t believe in.”
“I like that there are Harry Potter references in both your films,” I say. She gestures emphatically, “Right! I was thinking about that the other day! Harry Potter is so important to our generation!” We share a collective memory of pulling all-nighters, hiding flashlights under the covers to read all 700 pages of the newest book. What sweet nostalgia for an era where parents actually discouraged kids from reading all night. Our generational bond over Harry Potter mimics a thematic touchstone for Stenberg’s character in The Hate U Give. In the film, Stenberg plays 16-year-old Starr, who inhabits the antipodal worlds of the lower-income black neighborhood and the primarily white suburban private school. Starr remains rooted in her community through her childhood friend Khalil. In a pivotal scene, as they drive home from a party together, they reminisce about the Harry Potter days, flirtatiously asking if they kept the fake wands they played with as kids. Within the same scene, their car is pulled over and Khalil is fatally shot at the hands of a white policeman. After witnessing his death, the film follows Starr’s journey into activism as she finds her voice and reconciles her disparate identities.
The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. Tupac Shakur’s classic indictment of systemic, generational racism—“THUG LIFE”— inspired Angie Thomas’s novel, The Hate U Give, which served as the source material for the movie adaptation of the same name. Attached early on to the project, Stenberg was given the unpublished manuscript of the book by a friend who felt she could easily identify with Starr, the protagonist. “A myriad of things felt so similar to my own life,” Stenberg elaborates. “During the process of production, me and the director George Tillman, we were able to reference so much of my own life experience to create a language for how we would navigate different facets of Starr. So we have ‘Williamson’ Starr, which we would compare to the school I went to, called ‘Wildwood.’” She says Wildwood with an eye-roll to draw out the benign preppiness of such a quintessentially “private school” name. “We had ‘Garden Heights,’ which is similar to Leimert Park where I grew up. Sometimes on set, George would yell out ‘more Leimert!’ or ‘more Wildwood!’ We kind of created this chart that demonstrated the different ends of the spectrum for how severely she has to code-switch, but also for all the facets that exist in between.”
Drawn from a well of personal experience, there is a palpable energy in the friction of Starr’s shifting identity. Stenberg’s performance—most memorably in the traumatic shooting scene— left me with mascara running from my lashes to my shirt collar. The concerned stares I received from the theater’s security guard informed me that I did a bad job of concealing this emotional residue.
When Moonlight scooped La La Land for the best picture Oscar, it felt like Hollywood was finally taking its first blundering steps into an era of more diversified representation. There were debates surrounding the development of Get Out, and whether or not audiences could engage with America’s racism so directly. The success of the film answered with a resounding yes. So do studios have more faith in audiences? I ask Stenberg: “Do you have more faith in audiences?” This question gives her pause. Her eyes glance up, searching for an answer somewhere in the space above my head. “I think it’s also a matter of survival... in order to stay relevant and pique the interest of younger generations, they have to address contemporary social, political issues, because that’s what we care about. I think it’s really beautiful.” She continues, “Even in the process of development on The Hate U Give, I could tell there were moments of doubt from the studio. Just wanting to be really careful about how they make and market the film. There are certain words they use a lot. They want to make things”—her voice deepens as she ‘air quotes’ dramatically—“‘accessible,’ so it doesn’t ‘alienate people.’ So that it appeals to a ‘wide audience,’ which literally means white middle America. I feel like I have to counterbalance those tendencies in my own performance and make sure we don’t fall into tropes.”
At that moment, a jurassically large insect kamikazes through our conversation with a buzz loud enough to prompt a “holy shit” from Stenberg as she hops off her stool. “What the fuck was that?” asks a woman from a neighboring table. After a few minutes of head ducking and swatting, the bug exits the scene. Cafe patrons return to their kindles. Stenberg is laughing.
“So...” I say, taking a prolonged sip of my iced matcha. As I lower my mason jar, the new-age paper straw sticks to my upper lip, robbing me of any flirtatious swagger I might have achieved from this gesture. “I read your interview in Wonderland with King Princess.” Her eyes light up at the mention of Brooklyn-born singer KP. Published a month ago, Stenberg announced in full Ellen-on-the-cover-of-Time-squat style, “Yep, I’m Gay!” In a heartwarming and hilarious conversation between the two, Stenberg examines her sexual identity, coming out, and dismantling internalized heteronormativity. “We were like, how can we make it as explicitly clear as possible that I’m gay? Really just YEP!” she says, striking the Ellen pose with a hand under her chin. “I feel like I’ve been trying over the past six months over Instagram with kind of explicit and kind of funny captions, but I didn’t think it was going to be understood by the general media, so I was like, ‘This is the moment!’”
We wax poetic about the beautiful unlearning of heteronormativity through female relationships; the immense freedom of sexuality unbound by the patriarchy. Stenberg reflects, “I’ve always been gay. Through the process of coming to the conclusion that I am indeed gay, I was sifting through all of these childhood memories, experiences, feelings, discomforts and shames. For a lot of high school, I feel like my experiences with girls were so coded in shame and confusion and fear. It wasn’t until I was able to have gay experiences with women who are really fucking proud to be gay that I had the freedom and the space to unlearn all of that heteronormativity and that socialization. As soon as you let go of that feeling it’s very much like a beautiful, sacred unraveling. Taking apart all these social constructs and realizing what exists underneath is just so pure and so infinite and expansive.” Her eyes alight with a kind of hazy euphoria, and with a contagious smile she says, “Yeaaaah... it’s been so awesome.”
Queer women possess a sort of lez-bionic echolocation for one another. I have a psychic inkling that we are about to dish. And dish we do. We talk about our first on-screen girl crushes, the possible reboot of The L Word, the myth of scissoring: “If you see scissoring in a gay sex scene...nobody does that!” Seriously. We’ve all tried it once, but nobody does that. I bring up After Sex, a deep-cut of queer cinema that she mentioned in Wonderland. We reminisce about the unforgettable finger-licking scene between Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis on the floor of a library. “Shooketh.” She shakes her head knowingly, “Yeah. Shooketh.” Smiling, she continues, “Probably when I was shaken again in the same way was when Blue is the Warmest Color came out. I remember showing it to all my friends at summer camp and they were all like ‘ew gross.’ Meanwhile my pussy is just fully wet!” I let out bark of laughter and we proceed to ruthlessly pick apart all the flaws in that seven minute sex scene.
Like an obnoxious queerudite, I present a quote by critical theorist Judith Butler: “Being ‘out’ always depends to some extent on being ‘in’; it gains its meaning only within that polarity. Hence, being ‘out’ must produce the closet again and again in order to maintain itself as ‘out.’” Stenberg mulls this over for a minute. She answers with an anecdote. A week ago, a friend asked her: “What does it feel like to be a gay woman who is straight passing?” Stenberg does an impression of her own consternation in that moment— “What is that concept? How am I straight passing? Is my energy not dykey enough for you to not clock me as gay? I’m still in the process of coming out where I’m really excited to claim that label because it feels very liberating. At the same time, I feel like I have to step into this box now of like, ‘ok what does it look like to be a gay woman?’” As she speaks I can see her mind working to answer the questions she is asking herself. “It has always existed in my queer relationships— there’s this fluidity—a give and take that is almost effortless. I don’t feel the need to go forward and place myself in a particular idea of what it is to be gay. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Okay now everybody knows i’m a big ol’ dyke! How do I have fun with this?’ Sometimes I’ll be on my little fuckboi swag and I’ll be like ‘Yeaaaah, this is the shit!”
My phone buzzes with a text reminding me I’ve already gone fifteen minutes overtime. I need to return Stenberg to set. With that, she begins digging through her purse to find her own iPhone. She looks at me with a deadpan expression and lifts a copy of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt out of her bag. The cover is adorned with the movie poster from the Todd Haynes film Carol. “I hate that it’s the movie poster, I wanted the original cover. But don’t get me wrong—God bless Cate Blanchett.”
“God Bless Cate Blanchett.” With that benediction, we both sense a natural conclusion to our brief communion. Walking back to the office, the conversation I recorded sits like a six thousand word weight in my pocket. A transcript that feels almost sacrilegious to abridge as her words alone are more powerful than anything I can collage together. So God Bless Cate, but also God Bless Amandla. For being the authentic voice we need in this era, the 5’3”, 19-year-old we can all look up to.
Written by Andie Eisen
Photographed by Chuck Grant
Styled by Mui-Hai Chu
Flaunt film directed by Logan Rice
Hair: Vernon Francois
Makeup: Carola Gonzalez
Manicure: Stephanie Stone
Producer: Sophie Kuller
Photography Assistant: Thomas Patton
Styling Assistant: Sara Stephanie Katarzyna