“There’s power in just professing who you are,” says Amandla Stenberg. She should know: The 19-year-old veteran of The Hunger Games has vaulted to the front of the new queer guard, thanks to her willingness to influence and move the discussion about identity forward, both in her personal life and in three new riveting film projects.
Stenberg came out as bisexual on Teen Vogue’s Snapchat in 2016, and clarified things this summer in Wonderland magazine: “I was so overcome with this profound sense of relief when I realized that I’m gay — not bi, not pan, but gay — with a romantic love for women,” she said.
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Just a few years ago, that kind of candor would have been unthinkable for a teen at the beginning of her career. But for Stenberg, it was non-negotiable. “I can’t live an existence where I’m not myself,” she says. “Life is too short. It’s just kind of a coincidence that my identity happens to be controversial when it comes to how the institution of Hollywood has generally run. But I just have to be who I am, and I feel like when you speak it out into the world, you make it a lot easier to actualize it in yourself. Had I not been open about who I am, I wouldn’t have been able to find the pride and the joy in it that I feel now.”
Stenberg is a member of a new breed of LGBTQ influencers: Multihyphenate kids coming out early, building big followings, and using their various platforms to advance change. At the same time that she’s stepping up as a major role model, she’s taking on her biggest performance yet.
In director George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, Stenberg plays Starr Carter, an ambitious high schooler who witnesses her childhood friend, a gang member, get shot and killed by police. In the wake of the tragedy, she faces enormous pressure to stay quiet — to preserve her status at an affluent, mostly white private school, and to prevent gang retribution on her family.
Stenberg’s performance is stunningly assured, with the intensity and confidence of a champion marathoner: She is in every scene of the two-hour film. Not since Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone has an actress so young been called upon to carry a contemporary drama, and she more than pulls it off.
She developed the project (which also stars Issa Rae and Regina Hall) for two years, after she read the young-adult book on which it was based. “Growing up, I had a really similar experience to Starr, in having to navigate code switching between different environments,” says Stenberg, who grew up in South Los Angeles. “I think it’s really reflective of the present-day black experience — the code switching to fit into institutions that we haven’t historically been allowed into. So we’ve learned dual language in order to survive.”
That’s also a major reason why the film should resonate with an LGBTQ audience, regardless of their backgrounds. It’s that sense of universality that gave Stenberg the courage to come out. “I think what was most important to me — what had an effect on my feeling comfortable in the world — was being able to find community in the internet,” she says. “I feel like that has really revolutionized how you conceptualize yourself, because you realize you aren’t alone. You can see hundreds and hundreds of representations of yourself on the internet and realize that even if you might be in your respective cities or towns that you exist and live a parallel experience with someone else.”
Stenberg’s other fall film, Where Hands Touch, is the story of biracial children affected by the Holocaust; she plays a girl who falls in love with the son of a prominent Nazi officer. “Not a lot of people know about these kids,” she says. “They were the children of German women and French Senegalese soldiers who had had affairs during World War I, and they were coming of age right as the Holocaust was happening.”And she also starred in this summer’s Darkest Minds, from the producers of Stranger Things and Arrival, a movie based on a book series about a world in which 98 percent of children have been killed by a mysterious disease; those left behind have developed supernatural powers and are imprisoned by fearful adults. Stenberg plays a girl who escapes from a prison camp and joins forces with other escapees. “They kind of become a family as they band together to fight against the regime of the government that they’re living under,” she says. “It’s mostly a really fun ride.”
So far, her bankability isn’t an issue. Did she worry about it before coming out? “I did contemplate it at first,” she says. “I think I did have, and sometimes I still do have, reservations around how I should proceed. But at the same time, I feel like I have this platform, and if I don’t use it as a tool to do something greater, then I don’t really know what the point of it would be, you know? It wouldn’t really mean anything.
She continues, “What you’re seeing in Hollywood, I think, is a lot of studios and producers and filmmakers realizing that they need to cater to what interests our generation, and most of that is based on some sort of activism or interest in progressing our society, which is really beautiful. I think they’re realizing that it helps them monetarily, and keeps them relevant. If they don’t make that kind of content, audiences won’t be interested in what they have to say.”
Photography by John Russo. Styling by Nicolas Klam. Groomer: AJ Juttla.