Sten­berg

The Detroit News - - Week­end -

When she sees a white po­lice of­fi­cer shoot and kill her un­armed friend, Starr must de­cide whether to speak out.

Starr even­tu­ally finds her voice. Sten­berg has, too, but says she’s not done grow­ing yet.

“I’m find­ing my voice right now, as we speak,” she said, smil­ing, in a re­cent in­ter­view.

It’s a theme that Sten­berg re­turns to again and again: That what­ever la­bel has been put on her isn’t nec­es­sar­ily who she is — or who she will re­main.

“I ex­pe­ri­ence in­ter­sec­tions of iden­tity,” she says. “Ev­ery­one does.”

Even the word “ac­tivist” doesn’t sit quite right with her.

“I made a video that went vi­ral and since then, ev­ery­thing I’ve said or done has been politi­cized,” says Sten­berg, who gained fame from her break­through role of Rue in “The Hunger Games.”

The video, ti­tled “Don’t Cash Crop on My Corn­rows,” was a high school his­tory project in which Stern­berg an­a­lyzed the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of black cul­ture. Af­ter Sten­berg posted it on her Tum­blr, it was watched by mil­lions. One viewer was Thomas, who was in the midst of writ­ing her young-adult novel.

“I re­mem­ber watch­ing it and I was like: That’s ex­actly who I want Starr to be,” Thomas says about Sten­berg and her un­fold­ing ca­reer. “I can’t wait un­til 10 years from now when I’m like, ‘Yep, she was in my adap­ta­tion. That’s when it re­ally took off.’

I’m go­ing to have brag­ging points on that one.”

Sten­berg’s ed­u­ca­tion be­gan with her mother, who schooled

her on the likes of “Roots,” “The Color Pur­ple” and Nina Si­mone. From the age of 10, she com­muted from Leimert Park to the Wild­wood School near Santa Mon­ica. About four years ago, she be­gan to feel em­bold­ened by oth­ers on so­cial me­dia.

On In­sta­gram, she has been a force­ful voice on diver­sity and gen­der equal­ity. Sten­berg has said she re­moved her­self from con­tention for a “Black Pan­ther” role be­cause she felt the part shouldn’t go to a light-skinned woman of color. When some ques­tioned whether Starr should also be dark-skinned, Sten­berg re­sponded thought­fully about “my role in the quest for on­screen diver­sity and the sen­si­tiv­ity I must have towards the col­orism that I do not ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Sten­berg came out in an in­ter­view ear­lier this year (“Yep, I’m gay,” she said). Last week, af­ter watch­ing Chris­tine Blasey Ford’s tes­ti­mony, Sten­berg penned an op-ed for Teen Vogue about her two ex­pe­ri­ences of sex­ual as­sault.

“I would love to change the fabric of Hol­ly­wood,” she says, laugh­ing at the bravado of how that sounds. “I’m re­ally just be­ing my­self. I also think there’s a huge move­ment that’s been started and con­tin­ues that’s com­pletely in­de­pen­dent of me, but that I’ve been in­cluded in now, that’s been well on its way for a long time.”

Much of “The Hate U Give” in­volves Starr’s re­la­tion­ship with her father, a re­formed drug dealer played com­mand­ingly by Rus­sell Hornsby. His men­tor­ing of Sten­berg, she says, mir­rored the film. Hornsby’s reg­u­lar flow of ad­vice was “the best tough love I’ve ever re­ceived,” she says.

“She’s a beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful spirit,” Hornsby says of Sten­berg, whose own father is Dan­ish. “The role and her ac­tivism and where she’s in in life, ev­ery­thing is just per­fectly aligned. This is the role she was meant to do.”

The pro­duc­tion wasn’t easy. Sten­berg says she had resid­ual trauma for months fol­low­ing the shoot­ing scene and still vividly re­calls see­ing fake blood on her shoe. Worse, some scenes needed to be reshot long af­ter the fact, when it was re­vealed that Kian Law­ley, a white ac­tor who had been cast as Starr’s boyfriend, had pre­vi­ously been video­taped in a racist tirade. He was re­cast.

“The irony of that was not lost on us,” says Sten­berg.

What’s most strik­ing about the young ac­tor, both on cam­era and off, is her preter­nat­u­ral poise. When she speaks about so­cial is­sues, she is just nat­u­rally ex­press­ing her­self. For a so­called fire­brand, she is gen­tle and warm.

“The world is be­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ized so quickly,” she adds. “It’s the first time as a black ac­tress that I’ve seen these types of roles be avail­able to some­one who looks like me.”

Asked what she wants, Sten­berg ex­cit­edly re­sponds: “I want to di­rect!” But the main thing, she says, is that she doesn’t want to be con­fined by a me­dia-pre­scribed im­age.

“I want a lit­tle more free­dom to fig­ure my­self out as an artist,” Sten­berg says. “One ar­ti­cle comes out and makes it feel like you’re set in stone. Iden­tity is re­ally fluid, es­pe­cially at the age I’m at. It’s go­ing to change 50 mil­lion times and I’m go­ing to fig­ure out ex­actly how I want to ex­press my­self.”

She smiles. “And I want to have fun.”

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