Freshly enrolled on NYU’s film programme, the actress discusses talking the universe Willow Smith and the culture-shaping power of cinema
“It’s such a relief!” says Amandla Stenberg. The actress, writer, activist and former Dazed cover star has just been accepted onto New York University’s film programme, and she couldn’t be happier. “I feel like a lot of education in America is so centred on college... So to actually get into one and have that done is such a weight off my shoulders.” When you talk to Stenberg there are two things that are inescapable: her affability and her intelligence. Hailed as one of the voices of her generation, everything that Stenberg says sets the internet alight – whether it’s calling out Kylie Jenner’s culturally appropriative cornrows or Hollywood’s diversity problem.
But this 17-year-old is no loudspeaker – fiercely independent, she articulates her opinions with the confidence of someone who already has a degree behind them. And she’s already made several films – such as Yellow Wallpaper and Blue Girls Burn Fast – which shows she’s as capable a director as she is a feminist thinker. We meet Stenberg a week after she broke the news of her acceptance to NYU to her Instagram followers (posting a selfie with the caption “ur lookin at an NYU film student”). Keen to know more about her plans, we ask the aspiring auteur about her career path – both behind the camera, and in front.
So why did you choose NYU?
Amandla Stenberg: I chose NYU because I really want to move to New York. I love the city. My family is actually from there and so I’ve kind of commuted back and forth since I was younger. When I’m in New York I just really feel myself, I feel very alive. And I have so many friends there that make it so much fun. And NYU is obviously an amazing school and I’ve always wanted to attend the Film programme.
So what exactly are you going to be studying?
Amandla Stenberg: I’m gonna be studying directing and probably cinematography. I love cinematography. I actually shoot a lot of my friends’ shorts because camerawork and photography are huge passions of mine.
Which photographers do you like?
Amandla Stenberg: I love Tyler Mitchell, who’s on the Dazed 100. We’ve started to hang out. He’s an awesome person. Yeah, he’s really great. I also have a friend photographer named Emmanuel Olunkwa (on Instagram, his username is @stop__ok). We actually did a piece for Dazed about what it’s like being a person of colour who’s also an artist. And he’s really awesome as well.
And what about directors?
Amandla Stenberg: Yeah, I mean, I’ve found myself being most passionate and identifying most with people of colour who are also directors. And so I love Spike Lee (who doesn’t?) and like Ava DuVernay. I love work that feels more kind of like messy and authentic in a way. I love Lars Von Trier’s camerawork which is super hand-held, because that feels real to me, it feels very authentic and genuine. And that’s the kind of work that I want to make.
“I think film is the medium that shapes culture the most. Especially in America” – Amandla Stenberg
Do you think film has the power to shape culture?
Amandla Stenberg: Yeah, absolutely. I think film is the medium that shapes culture the most. Especially in America. I think the people that we see in the films are the people who we view society as, you know? And I think that’s why there needs to be more representation for different kinds of people. And it’s happening. I wish it would happen faster…
Are there any specific films you think that really changed culture?
Amandla Stenberg: Well, we were talking about Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (1989) was such a society, culture changing movie. It focussed on police brutality and, you know, created stories for people who are not always the most represented
Have you met Spike?
Amandla Stenberg: I haven’t met him. But I know he’s a professor at NYU, so I’m hoping that I will.
And in terms of your dreams for directing, what kind of stories do you want to tell?
Amandla Stenberg: Well, like we were talking about, I feel like there’s a lack of representation for different kinds of people, and so I want to provide that. Especially focusing on stories that feature and star women of colour – that’s very important to me. Or people of colour, no matter their gender, maybe they’re non-binary, that would be really dope. To make a story about a non-binary person. I like stories that focus right now on growing up because that’s what I’m doing. And stories that are kind of bittersweet, you know? I’m someone who’s pretty obsessed with nostalgia and heartbreak. And so I find myself making work that kind of centres around that.
What kind of nostalgia?
Amandla Stenberg: Like a nostalgia for your childhood, the relationships that you form with other people, the people around you that kind of define who you are. Those are things that are important to me.
And what about your parents, have they shaped your outlook on life in that respect?
Amandla Stenberg: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my mom in particular is always just dropping little bits of wisdom on me. She definitely moulds my perspective in terms of looking at the world and judging what is important to me, and what I need to focus on and what I don’t need to focus on. She’s someone who always tells me not to narrow my viewpoint, but focus on the things that are true to myself, focus on the things that are not distractions.
And what about your friends, like Willow (Smith)?
Amandla Stenberg: Yeah, well my mom tells me to keep my focus and Willow tells me to expand my mind! Yeah, she’s the best, she’s really amazing… I was just texting her actually, I need to text her back. But yeah, she’s someone who I can just talk to for hours about the universe. She helps me broaden my perspective and think about things in a completely fresh way.
“Willow tells me to expand my mind! ... She helps me broaden my perspective and think about things in a completely fresh way” – Amandla Stenberg
You said that, when it comes to your photography, you like working with your friends. Is that something you’d want to do with your films too?
Amandla Stenberg: Yeah!
Would you get Willow involved?
Amandla Stenberg: Yeah! I feel like the job of a director is kind of just to capture vibes and then bring people together, so let them do what they do best. And so most of the shorts I’ve worked on have completely featured all of my friends as actors and… the music in the last short I did, a bit of the music is Willow’s and some other friends of mine.
Are you working on a film right now?
Amandla Stenberg: I’m always working on things as a director, I’m always jotting down ideas, writing things, shooting things… I haven’t shared all of them but I plan on sharing some things soon. And as an actor, I just worked on this movie called As You Are (2016), which is this story about these two teenagers in the 90s kind of growing up, exploring their sexualities, exploring their identities and friendship. So we just went to Sundance for that which was so much fun, and we ended up getting the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award, so it was awesome, so exciting!
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