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Amandla Stenberg Isn’t Just Looking for ‘Multidimensional Black Characters’ to Play, She’s Creating Them — IndieWire Honors

This year's IndieWire Honors honoree for Breakthrough Performance has chosen her roles carefully, but none of them have been as close to her heart as "The Hate U Give."

Amandla Stenberg arrives at the 11th Annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards Luncheon on in Beverly Hills, Calif11th Annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards Luncheon, Beverly Hills, USA - 01 Mar 2018

Amandla Stenberg

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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On November 1, the 2018 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate seven filmmakers and actors for their achievement in creative independence. We’re showcasing their work with new interviews this week.

Less than a decade into her career, actress Amandla Stenberg has already enjoyed at least two breakthrough moments, from her heartbreaking turn as the ill-fated young tribute Rue in “The Hunger Games” to her life-changing leading role in the recent big screen adaptation of “The Hate U Give.” Based on Angie Thomas’ timely bestseller of the same name, George Tillman Jr.’s film is built on Stenberg’s capable shoulders, casting the actress as Starr Carter, a clever teenager forced to live in two very different worlds, both of which come crashing down after a horrific crime.

“She’s allowed to be so multidimensional in a way most black characters are not,” the actress said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “She is so nuanced and real.”

Since first getting attention for her work as the fan favorite Rue in the first “Hunger Games” when she was just 12 (her first big accolade: a Teen Choice Award for Choice Chemistry, shared with co-star Jennifer Lawrence), Stenberg has been picky about her roles. Even as a kid, Stenberg didn’t seem interested in settling for easy roles that didn’t allow her to grow. She wanted wanted to find better opportunities, and eventually found them.

In 2016, she starred in Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s little-seen Sundance drama “As You Are,” a compelling coming-of-age drama about a trio of friends grappling with their identities. That same year, she appeared as herself in Beyonce’s “Lemonade” music video, turning in work so good it was honored with the BET YoungStar Award.

A year later, Stenberg scored her first leading role, starring in Stella Meghie’s “Everything, Everything,” another adaptation, this time based on Nicola Yoon’s popular YA novel of the same name. That film, which imagined Stenberg as a teen who falls in love despite a terminal illness that keeps her sequestered in her home, was the only wide release film directed by a black woman to be released that year. Alongside co-star Nick Robinson, Stenberg brought strength, sweetness, and determination to a role that went way beyond any other “sick kid love story” tropes.

This year is Stenberg’s busiest one yet, and in addition to “The Hate U Give,” the actress also stars in Amma Asante’s World War II drama “Where Hands Touch,” which also debuted at TIFF just two days after “The Hate U Give” premiered, and the YA franchise-starter “The Darkest Minds,” also from Fox. Still, it’s Tillman’s film that seems to be the truest expression of Stenberg’s talents and her desire for truly multidimensional characters.

“The Hate U Give”

Fox 2000

An early fan of Thomas’ book — she read it before it was even published, and told her parents immediately that it was “one of the most special books I’ve ever read” — Stenberg was intent on being part of a possible film adaptation. By her own admission, her own agent “pitched her hard” to the Fox brass and the actress “went HAM” when it came time to get the role. “I committed myself to it as much as I could, and put my heart into it,” she said.

Stenberg was drawn to the role of Starr Carter for the simple reason that she could see herself in the character. Like Starr, Stenberg grew up in a lower-income urban neighborhood and attended a predominantly white private school. In Tillman’s film, Starr spends her days switching between her family life and her school life, endeavoring to keep them separate, in hopes of surviving and thriving in each. Her wealthy school friends never come to her home, and her best friends from the neighborhood wouldn’t dream of showing up at her ritzy school.

“Starr was very similar to me,” Stenberg said. “I was able to bring my own personal life experience, to make the dialogue and references authentic. I understood those dualities and complexities of how I present myself depending on the environment I was entering, in order to be accepted.”

That, of course, can’t sustain forever, and when one of Starr’s best childhood friends is killed in front of her by a white cop, her personal struggles become both political and public. Stenberg has been outspoken in her activism in recent years and has ably used her status as a rising star to talk openly about her intersectional feminist beliefs (in 2015, the Ms. Foundation for Women” named her their “Feminist of the Year”) and her sexuality (she identifies as gay).

“The Hate U Give” offered her the chance to dig into the Black Lives Matter movement in a timely and personal way, thanks to an emotional story that Thomas based on the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant (incidentally, the same shooting that fellow 2018 IndieWire Honors honoree Ryan Coogler dramatized in his own breakout film, “Fruitvale Station”).

“It’s probably something a lot of young people relate to,” Stenberg said. “They now have inextricably linked coming-of-age with political awakenings. Living in this time requires that. … Personally, as I was coming of age, my political awareness was simultaneous with my understanding of the world.”

Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.

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