by Montgomery Jones and Joneka Percentie
In 2012, I won a TV competition to interview the cast of The Hunger Games at the world premiere in Los Angeles, and that’s when I met Amandla Stenberg. She was a 13 year old that looked younger than she was and I was an 18 year old that looked older than I was. The crowds were hectic and everything was fast paced but Amandla’s interview (one of a trillion she did that day I’m sure) with me stuck out. She was so incredibly poised and articulate and at the time I remember feeling immense pride. Not sure why exactly. Perhaps it is because Amandla is a mixxie just like myself, so I felt a bond. When a lot of racist backlash began in regards to Amandla playing the beloved Rue (who if you read the book, is in fact African American), she held her head high and didn’t feed in to the negative hysteria. I, on the other hand, was a wreck. I felt this weird protective big sister role (for a girl who didn’t even know me!) and I kept arguing with trolls on the internet and friends who said snarky remarks or simply didn’t agree with casting.
In June 2013, Amandla was interviewed by SPARK mentor Jamia Wilson, in a wonderful piece that made even more people love Amandla. Later, Tavi Gevinson interviewed/had a magical conversation with/ had a super fun and intellectual conversation with Amandla for Dazed and Confused in which they discussed everything from religion to feminism, but what stuck out to me was the talk of roles for young African American women in Hollywood–or the lack thereof. Amandla talked about how refreshing it is to play a complicated character. Complex female characters as a whole are lacking, and complex roles for women of color that don’t trade on horrible stereotypes are basically nonexistent.
Amandla aspires to be a director, and if her short film and our conversation with her are any indication, she will be one of the best directors around. I’m even more excited for what this means for the film industry, because with people as aware as Amandla behind the scenes and calling the shots, I predict realistic people from all backgrounds will be represented and discussions like these will be a thing of the past.
Joneka: There’s a series we are doing for SPARK called Black Women Create. What we’ve done is interview so many different Black women who work in the production process, and the directing process, filming, independent filmmakers, all that sort of thing, and highlight their work because we want to showcase not only in front of the scenes but the work done behind the scenes. So when it was posted in our group that you had this short film based on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was like ‘oh this is so awesome and so exciting!’
The Yellow Wallpaper (Short Film) from amandla stenberg on Vimeo.
Joneka: So one of the first questions I have is about your personal directing style and editing style, because I’m sure it’s so different being behind the camera and holding all the power in your hands so to speak. So what is that like and what is your style?
Amandla: I don’t quite know that I have a style yet as this is my first thing that I’ve done, but I am definitely someone who is really connected to and attached to aesthetics so I paid a lot of attention to the colors of the film. When I was first brainstorming, one of the first things I thought of was, what is the color palette going to be like? What music is there going to be? Those were the two most important things to me. I felt like the film would fall in to place after I had decided what those would be. In terms of editing, I really like to use this whole sort of surrealists like subliminal messaging thing because I think that works really well when doing horror.
Joneka: It’s cool that you mention the music because I remember one of the most intense scenes was with the violin going all sharp and crazy and it really creeped me out which was really cool!
Amandla: That was me playing!
Joneka: That was you?! No way! That’s so awesome.
Montgomery: You’re in a band right?
Amandla: Yeah! I just used a bunch of different tracks on garage band because I can actually play.
Montgomery: That’s so cool!
Joneka: That was definitely a standout point as far as music went! I also want to ask you, since you mentioned this was your first directing project ever, do you see yourself doing more projects like this in the future?
Amandla: Definitely, it’s something I really connect to and I hope to be able make a career out of. I think acting is a really awesome gateway in to that.
Joneka: We talked earlier about how important it is to showcase diversity behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera, so how do you think Black women behind the scenes and in the production process affects representation on screen?
Amandla: Well I know that I, personally, as a director in the future, would absolutely love to create projects centered around black women. And I think there definitely needs to be more black women behind the camera. Those directors who are African-American women are so important to me, because representation is completely linked to inspiration and confidence within the African-American communities. I look up to those people and I hope that by being a director I can inspire and create representation by casting black women and sharing powerful stories. That’s the dream.
Montgomery: What drew you or attracted you to the subject matter, The Yellow Wallpaper? Was it an assignment? Did you choose it?
Amandla: How the project started was there’s actually a class in my school called ‘Lit to Film.’ And what they do is read books and watch the film adaption of those books, and one of their projects was to read classic short stories and other pieces and adapt them in to screenplays. So what they then did was they pitched those screenplays to the film class, and I was pitched “All Summer in a Day” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and of course “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I just thought The Yellow Wallpaper was so fascinating and I read the short story and I loved the themes it had around feminism. I like to call it sneak-attack feminism because it’s right there under the surface and it really highlights and exposes how women were treated with mental illnesses during that time, which I think is really interesting and really important. That’s why I chose to actually to make a film out of that screenplay.
Montgomery: That’s the coolest school class I have ever heard of! I’ve never even heard of that, that’s awesome. So do you think the material is still relevant to today?
Amandla: Definitely, I mean there’s this whole metaphor of the woman being behind the paper and her feeling trapped by it. And I think that part is definitely relevant. I think there is still a stigma around women and mental illness and women being “crazy” or being “unstable.” I think even more so now it’s important how the woman felt trapped behind the paper and wanted so desperately to get out. ‘Cause I feel like now there’s this whole surge of, like another surge of feminists and people who want to get from behind the paper. I think it’s definitely still relevant.
Montgomery: When did you come to grips with being a feminist? Because not to be patronizing cause I’m only five years older than you, but “you’re so young” [laughter], and I know that’s such a clichéd line, but when did you have your aha moment, like “I’m a feminist!”?
Amandla: I was talking about this today with a friend of mine because we were talking about the definition of the word feminist and how a lot of women don’t think they’re feminist because they don’t understand what the meaning of it is.
Amandla: And the meaning of it is just equality, you know it’s not placing women over men. It’s equality. I think I discovered feminism just means being someone who can be themselves and have equal rights in the world…. so probably about a year ago. And it wasn’t like I decided to be a feminist, I just realized I was one.
Montgomery: That’s so awesome, that’s exactly what we always say in SPARK, they ask the celebrities and they say “no I’m not a feminist” and we’re like “you don’t know what that means!”
Joneka: We’re just like “actually…..”
Amandla: Like you areeee.
A huge THANK YOU from us to Amandla! We’re so excited to see where her career goes–and we’re pretty sure it’s gonna be AMAZING!