Amandla Stenberg's upcoming film, the Amma Asante-directed Where Hands Touch, has created its share of controversy. In the movie, Stenberg plays Leyna, a biracial girl living in Germany during Adolf Hitler's reign. She falls in love with another teen, Lutz (George MacKay), who also happens to be a member of the Hitler Youth. You can probably see where the controversy comes into play. For many, this film is a case of "Oh no, baby! what is you doing?"
In her latest interview with Variety for its Young Hollywood edition, Stenberg defended the film and Asante's intentions, saying that Asante's mission is to show how the government and society affected people's viewpoints for the worst during Hitler's control.
"I think something that [Asante] is the most fascinated by and thinks is the most profound is the intersection of identity and how it’s changed by our environments and our governments and by our peers and our families, and that was her intention with Where Hands Touch," Stenberg told Variety. "She spent time writing over the past 12 years and it's her baby and her passion project...She always does what she does with a deep and open heart towards how she can portray identity and how through portraying identity throughout history, she can draw comparisons and hopefully teach lessons about what's happening now."
This mirrors what Asante has said about her film. As she told Variety last year, "It has been a passion of mine to tell this story for many years--to shine a light on the existence of German children of color who were forced to grow up under Hitler's rule, labelled as 'Rhineland bastards.' Against this historical backdrop, Leyna and Lutz enter a rite of passage negotiating the path to true identity in a society that has turned in on itself and is eating its own tail. Completing this film brings together everything I am as a filmmaker."
Asante has also discussed the film on Instagram last year, writing, "...Many of you have had questions and concerns about this First Look image so I want to assure you that this film does not romanticize Nazis in any way...My wish has been to explore how black and bi-racial German identity was perceived and experienced under Nazi fascist rule. This girl's experience sits [alongside] the Jewish experience and the experience of others who were persecuted. It looks at how Germany became Nazi Germany and slept walked itself into a disgusting and murderous state that resulted in it killing [its] own people and those of other countries. Leyna's story (Amandla Stenberg) sits in this sad and terrifying context."
As IndieWire reported last year, when the first look image from the film was released, it received intense criticism from the blogosphere, with social media users expressing the opinion that "in crafting a story around a persecuted person and a Hitler Youth, Asante was 'romanticizing' Nazis and otherwise diminishing the experience of those that suffered during World War II and the Holocaust." These fears aren't unfounded. To be fair, there is another image of Stenberg's character in a concentration camp, but from what the other first look image shows--the image featuring Stenberg and MacKay looking longingly at their intertwined fingers--it seems the main thrust of the film is the love story, not the plight of people of color tracked down by Hitler.
Asante's reason for making Where Hands Touch--shining a light on the people of color who were living in Hitler's Germany--is a good one, but if the images released reflected that intention, it would give more people a reason to believe in the film's message. If Asante's motivation for making the film is to highlight people of color in Nazi Germany, that reason would have much more weight if it wasn't attached to a love story with a Nazi youth as the love interest.
It's an understatement to say this type of love story would make people uncomfortable, and it's surprising Asante seems not to have thought about the optics of such a story. Because of how it appears, people have an understandable reason for thinking this film is romanticizing or fetishizing the Nazis. Some might also feel this film fetishizes interracial relationships as a whole as if being in a relationship with someone of another race is enough to change socially incendiary times. Some commenters on Asante's Instagram page have pointed this out to the director.
The film makes its U.S. premiere September 14, so we'll see then how romanticized this film is. But it's quite clear that the assertions made by both Stenberg and Asante won't help people feel better about this film.