On a recent visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, actress Amandla Stenberg made a beeline for “Watching Oprah,” an exhibit dedicated to the TV-icon-turned-all-of-it-icon.
“Oprah was very integral in my household,” she said, peering at the biographical information on the walls. “My mom used to be a journalist. . . . She worked at Elle magazine and then moved into celebrity journalism. The irony is not lost on me.”
Stenberg had come to the museum for an hour or so while her new movie, “The Hate U Give,” was being screened for a group of high school students at the National Museum of American History around the corner. After trading a pair of skinny stilettos for comfier combat boots, she noted that her mother brought back a souvenir sweatshirt from the African American Museum after a visit to Washington and that Stenberg wore it the entire time she was shooting the film. “So it’s kind of like a full-circle moment for me,” she said.
The movie’s themes chime with Stenberg’s own willingness to take a stand, which she has demonstrated in her online persona and her career choices. According to “Hate U Give” author Angie Thomas, Stenberg embodies a generation impatient for change.
“She doesn’t allow the world to box her in, nor does she let it silence her,” Thomas said. “She is not bending to Hollywood’s standards but rather setting her own, and for that, not only will the film industry be better but the world will indeed be better.”
If Stenberg attains the stardom many have predicted for her, it will be as a product of her generation at its most intersectional, media-literate and culturally competent. As an artist, activist and digital native, Stenberg is uniquely suited for a time when the public, the personal, the professional and the political have never been more fused.
Biracial in ethnic derivation, nonbinary in gender identification, gay in sexual orientation, multi-hyphenate in creative aspiration, Stenberg embodies a similar blurring of boundaries. She grew up in Los Angeles with her African American mother and Danish father, commuting from their modest Leimert Park neighborhood to the far tonier Wildwood School. Her first movie role was in “Colombiana,” as a young version of Zoe Saldana. “The Hunger Games” — just her second film — was seen by tens of millions of people around the world. But it was a video she made for history class in 2015 that became a watershed: Called “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” the 4-minute-30-second tutorial explained the most offensive dynamics of cultural appropriation. After Stenberg posted the video on Tumblr, it became a viral sensation.
Since then, Stenberg has been hailed as something of an avatar for a new, un-compartmentalized form of Hollywood activism. Whereas actors once adopted political causes almost like career accessories, in today’s 24/7 fishbowl, celebrities are expected to live their principles with every choice they make — on the red carpet and on Twitter, in their movies and publicity appearances, and in any unguarded moment within recording range of a cellphone.
Stenberg found herself in the midst of controversy this year when some observers expressed disappointment that a light-skinned actress was cast in “The Hate U Give,” in part because the cover of the book depicts Starr as darker-skinned. Stenberg issued a long statement on Instagram assuring that her critics had been “seen and heard,” adding that the “lack of diversity within the black girl representation we’re finally getting is apparent and it’s NOT ENOUGH, and I understand my role in the quest for onscreen diversity and the sensitivity I must have towards the colorism that I do not experience.”
Thomas insisted that she had Stenberg in mind while she was writing the book. “I came across her ‘Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows’ video, and I was completely blown away,” she said. “Immediately, I thought, ‘That’s exactly who I want Starr to be.’ She embodied everything I hoped this character would become. She was outspoken, aware and passionate. She was the personification of ‘black girl magic.’ ”