Amandla Stenberg: ‘I Have No Interest In Films Without A Message’

The Hate U Give is already being hailed as one of the most important films of the year, Hannah Flint speaks to Amandla Stenberg, its breakout star

The Hate U Give is already being hailed as one of the most important films of the year, Hannah Flint speak to Amandla Stenberg, its breakout star

by Hannah Flint |
Updated on

There’s a moment in The Hate U Give when its main character, Starr Carter, climbs on to a car bonnet in the middle of a Black Lives Matter protest and grabs a megaphone. She’s there for her best friend Khalil, a young, unarmed black man who was murdered by a white police officer right in front of her.

Up until that moment, she’s largely remained silent, terrified of the repercussions of speaking out. But then she sees hundreds of people protesting Khalil’s death before a sea of riot police and, taking hold of the megaphone – tears streaming down her face – she quite literally finds her voice.

Amandla Stenberg, the LA-born actor who brilliantly plays Starr, has seemingly had far less difficulty finding hers. A bonafide Insta-activist, she (Amandla has also used the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ and came out as gay in June) speaks up on racism, the importance of voting and sexual harassment.

Last week, she was named as one of Time magazine’s ‘next generation leaders’ and wrote a powerful piece about her experiences of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, Beyoncé once told her that she wants her daughter Blue Ivy to be just like her when she grows up. But despite being tipped as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new young talents, Amandla, who turns 20 next week, has one rule: no roles that don’t serve a purpose.

‘I feel a responsibility,’ Amandla says on the phone from New York, ‘but these are also the only sorts of roles that I’m interested in. It’s probably something my mom instilled in me. When I was younger, the only roles I would have received would be like “daughter of drug user” or “overly sexualised young black girl”.

But she always said, “No, we don’t have to touch the roles that you don’t want to play.” I don’t really have interest in stereotypes of myself. Or putting myself in a light that robs me of the ability to do more activism.’ I wonder how Amandla feels about Hollywood actors who choose not to use their platform for good. ‘I think it should be everyone’s moral responsibility and not necessarily postulate it as really radical, because it’s what we should all be doing,’ says Amandla, rather diplomatically.

But she accepts that not everyone wants to follow her lead. ‘I have friends who exist within marginalised intersections of identity who have no interest in speaking out. Because they just want the ability to exist. And in many ways, I think that’s enough.’

The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, has already been hailed as ‘vital’ and the ‘most significant film for Generation Z’. For a film aimed at teenagers, there are times when it feels startlingly adult. The camera refuses to shy away from the violence and horror of Khalil’s death, for example, or the raw emotion on Starr’s face. But it feels necessary. ‘It’s supposed to be reflective of reality,’ says Amandla. ‘A lot of young people are being exposed to this type of violence.’

She read the book in one sitting, and went for the part before it had even been published. ‘It tore my heart out of my chest, and I chased the project really hard.’ But she needn’t have: Thomas had written the book with her in mind all along, something Amandla only found out after they’d started filming.

She wants the film to humanise the Black Lives Matter movement, so often simplified by the media. ‘Hopefully, placing it within a personal narrative can help people understand the gravity of the situation. That we are a beautiful community who have experienced a lot.’

Amandla wants the film to help young girls like her ‘feel validated’ in the same way she was when she first came across Starr. ‘I felt like I had never seen anyone else like Starr in a book before. You know, a black girl who is multi-dimensional and nuanced and actually reflective of who we are as black girls and women’. She tells me the story of one girl who, after a screening, was ‘crying her eyes out, just sobbing. It made me cry too because I understand that feeling of not being seen or understood and then, once you are, it can be this huge relief.’

The intense reaction to this film is not lost on her. ‘People are screaming, they’re crying, they’re laughing, they’re clapping. It’s all that you can hope for, when you share a film, that people have an emotional response to it. I’ve felt really gratified and humbled by it.’

‘The Hate U Give’ is in cinemas nationwide from 22 October.

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