‘I’m so tired of the word woke’

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Amandla Stenberg is a rare Hollywood beast – an actor unafraid to mix her activism with her art.

The former feminist of the year – whose name means “power” in Zulu – also isn’t afraid to shock.

She rocked the red carpet of the European premiere of her latest film The Hate U Give with unshaven armpits, where the unexpected pairing of Valentino and body hair garnered plenty of media attention.

But while she is both politically and socially active, Stenberg is keen to distance herself from the label “young woke activist”.

Stenberg told Sky News: “I’m so tired of the word woke! I cannot stand it! It’s cool that people think I’m woke, which I guess means that they think I’m socially aware. But I think that the word woke and the social media and pop culture activism has played out a little bit, I don’t think it’s necessarily effective.

“Sometimes I think it creates a culture that actually is not conclusive to progress just because it can be really surface level rather than actually getting to the heart of topics, or can also be kind of critical in a way that scares people away from actually growing.”

Amandla Stenberg attends the European Premiere of The Hate U Give during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival
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Stenberg’s armpit hair made headlines at the film’s European premiere in London

Three years after posting a short video entitled Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows, described as “a crash discourse in black culture”, she admits we now live in a very different climate.

She says the answer must come from a place of cultural exchange.

“I think appropriation happens when there is a continual devaluing of the lives of black people and a complete lack of attempts to understand the black experience and respect it in the process of enjoying the culture.

“Now we’re living in a time where it’s like black vernacular, black style, black references are so at the forefront of pop culture, I think that’s really cool honestly, as long as we as a culture value black lives.”

Amandla Stenberg and Algee Smith in The Hate U Give
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Stenberg and co-star Algee Smith in The Hate U Give

While the Hunger Games star is no longer posting political vlogs, it was her 2015 cornrow video that brought her to the attention of Angie Thomas – the author of the number one New York Times bestselling young adult novel The Hate U Give.

The 30-year-old writer, who was working on the book when she saw Stenberg’s video, told Sky News: “I remember watching that and I was like ‘That’s exactly who I want Starr [Carter, the novel’s lead character] to be. I want her to possess everything that this young lady has.'”

Like Thomas, Stenberg – who grew up just blocks away from the then Meghan Markle’s family home in Los Angeles – was brought up in a mainly black community while attending a white private school.

Both Thomas and Stenberg became adept at code switching – being two different people in two different environments.

Thomas admits: “I was very different in my school world because I never wanted anyone to stereotype me or write me off as the ghetto black girl.”

This is just the challenge Starr faces as she and her brother sidestep the local high school where you only go “to get drunk, high or pregnant”.

The Hate U Give - Amandla Stenberg, Angie Thomas, George Tillman Jr and Kate Taylor attend the European premiere
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Stenberg with author Angie Thomas and director George Tillman Jr at the premiere

Starr’s navigation of the two different lifestyles is brought to a head when her black childhood friend, Khalil, is shot by a white policeman.

In real life, Thomas’s book was inspired by the shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was killed by a white police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009 in Oakland, California.

Although Thomas didn’t know him personally, she says she took his death personally, writing the story to voice “the anger, frustration, fear and hurt that so many young people like myself felt after his death”.

She says that while she was deeply affected by his death, many of her schoolmates failed to grasp the significance of a young, unarmed black man being shot in the back by a white on-duty officer.

'The Hate U Give' BAFTA film screening, New York, USA - 16 Oct 2018
Angie Thomas (left), Amandla Stenberg
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Thomas (left) and Stenberg attended a BAFTA screening in New York

The film starts with “The Talk”, which, as the director of the film, George Tillman Jr told Sky News, “is a normal everyday occurrence in the inner-city communities, for both working-class people of colour and upper-class African Americans, telling you how to conduct yourself around a police officer.

“Most people get the talk about the birds and the bees, we get the talk about the birds and the bees, and how to stay alive.”

Rapper Tupac Shakur’s often misunderstood philosophy of THUGLIFE (“The hate you give little infants f***s everybody”) runs throughout the film, as well as giving it it’s title.

Stenberg explains: “What it means is the violence that you aim towards children or the systems and structures that they are born into that are detrimental and painful and discriminate them reverberates not just through them and their experiences but also through our entire communities and everybody.

“So racism is detrimental not just to black people, but to everyone. Sexism is detrimental not just to women but to everyone of every gender.”

The late rapper’s family went to see the film, giving it their blessing along with permission to use three of his songs in the soundtrack.

Referring to race relations in the US during these fractious times, Thomas says: “Police brutality in America isn’t new – social media is. Phones with cameras they’re new, but the acts aren’t new.

“Even racism itself – for years people wanted to act as if we were in a post-racial society when that’s not true. Just because we had President Obama in office doesn’t mean racism no longer exists. He suffered from it himself.”

And as for developments since Donald Trump became president, Thomas says in many ways she has more hope than she did before.

“Now people are more aware of what is happening beyond themselves. Something about the election made people aware of these things.

“When you have someone who is this divisive and who does use such racist tactics it makes people realise, ‘Whoa, this is not something that is going away’.

“And now people are more involved in politics. There was a time when no one in America really cared about a mid-term election, now everybody I know is like, ‘mid-term, mid-term, mid-term!'”

The Hate U Give is in cinemas now.



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