An Ode to Lupita Nyong’o, Our New Genre Queen
Th, Jordan Peele’s latest film Us dominated the domestic box office in its opening weekend with a $70 million opening. That number was, according to Box Office Mojo, the 2nd largest opening ever for a live-action original film, the third largest opening ever for an R-rated horror movie, and the largest opening for a live-action, original film since Avatar in 2009. Suffice to say, Us is a very big deal. The success of Us also saw a record breaking moment for its star, Lupita Nyong’o. In what is, shockingly, her first headlining role, Nyong’o now has the honour of being the star of the most successful opening weekend for a movie led by a black woman. She’s been in bigger movies and won the biggest award in her field, but this past weekend was the moment where Nyong’o got to slap away years of cynicism from a white male dominated industry that insisted she couldn’t be a leading lady with financial clout in the same way as contemporaries like Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Stone.
It has been six years since Lupita Nyong’o won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her breakout performance in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Her road to that victory was a short burst of glory that sent her into the stratosphere of celebrity and made her the undisputed star of that awards season. The endless cycles of red carpet appearances can be monotonous for some, but Nyong’o and her team were savvy enough to turn that months long parade into a declaration of arrival. She already had the critics’ favour in her corner thanks to her heart-breaking performance in the film, but as we’ve seen time and time again, it’s just not enough to simply be the best actor of the year, and she keenly understood that, particularly as someone with far less name recognition than her competitors, like Jennifer Lawrence. So Lupita did the awards cycle, from the interviews to the ceremonies to all the silly talk-show appearances, but where she truly made her mark was with her fashion choices. She spent months wearing the most beautiful dresses, vibrant and eye-catching and designed to make everyone look at her. As a stunningly beautiful woman, Nyong’o could probably make bin-bags look chic, but wearing iconic look after look kept her in our consciousness almost as much as her performance and the awards themselves. It was like an entire season of when Elizabeth Hurley wore that Versace safety pin dress: You yearned to see what Lupita would wear next.
Nyong’o has not been in many projects since winning her Oscar. She’s an undeniable talent and beauty but Hollywood is racist as all hell and still refuses to see a dark skinned black woman as a leading cinematic force. However, many of the choices that Nyong’o made post-12 Years a Slave are purposefully mainstream, even when the roles themselves are limited. She’s in the new Star Wars series but in a motion-capture role that obscures her face and body. She’s a voice in the remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book. Queen of Katwe had her in a supporting role but one seldom seen in Hollywood - a young black African mother’s story - and in a Disney movie to boot. Of course, there was Black Panther, a cultural milestone that broke records, delighted audiences and critics alike, set a new blockbuster standard, and won a few Oscars along the way. We got to see Nyong’o in full force, kicking ass and flirting with T’Challa and being so much more than Marvel have often allowed their actresses to be.
And then there was Us. Nyong’o has received reviews on near revelatory levels for her performance(s) in the film. Nyong’o has always been prized for her grace and old-school leading lady presence, the way she radiates warmth and appeal as effortlessly as she breathes, but with Us, she has gotten to show off the range of her physicality. As Adelaide/Red, she flips between brittle and menacing, from a woman trying to hold it together and keep her trauma at bay to a hunter who loves the primal thrill of the chase. As Red, she stares at her double with a look that flickers between guileful and guileless with ease, like a child who knows they’re doing bad and takes too much joy in that fact. There’s not a moment of those performances where you doubt Nyong’o’s impeccable control over what she’s doing. It’s the work of a master and it’s a true joy to watch, even when you’re terrified beyond belief.
Nyong’o has also continued her red carpet domination with the Us press tour, once again using fashion as a means of promotion and to send a message about her own stardom. Her displays of sartorial witchiness have been stunning to watch, blending high fashion with horror couture and colourful contact lenses. It’s the sort of blending of work and play that we seldom see on the red carpet these days, as stylists move in much safer directions and away from the days of Cher and swan dresses. Watching Nyong’o pull it off once more is a reminder of the joys of risks taken.
This is partly what has made Nyong’o such an alluring option to be our generation’s genre queen. She has made consciously visible choices and that’s led her to the current dominant form of entertainment: The geeky blockbuster. She’s formed a strong relationship with Disney primarily through these projects, which also have the handy side-effect, along with beauty deals, of funding projects like Eclipsed on stage and future work as a producer. The spotlight is on Star Wars and Disney’s live-action remakes and the MCU so that’s where Nyong’o has gone. Even when she’s not on the screen, she’s become a indelible part of this new generation of geek entertainment, and she’s embraced it wholeheartedly. Not only that but she’s harnessed its power and popularity in a way few other stars of her calibre have.
But that hasn’t been easy for her. It’s tough to ignore how, after her Oscar win, she didn’t seem to get anywhere near the same level of offers in high-profile prestige projects as her white contemporaries. She’s been in some of the biggest movies of all time but seems far more plagued by the ‘is she bankable’ question than some white actresses who have crashed and burned at the box office with far lower stakes. When conversations occur for which actress will get that much coveted role in an inevitable Oscar favourite, you don’t tend to see Lupita’s name included. She may be part of some of the biggest films ever made but she’s relegated to supporting positions at best and parts where you never see her at worst. It took until Us for her to be a lead. She has her moment with this film and she has made it her own but it’s damn depressing that it took this long after she won the top honour in her industry for her to get it.
Nyong’o is a good choice for our new genre queen (her next film is the zombie movie Little Monsters, another leading role that got strong reviews out of SXSW). On top of being versatile and charismatic across an array of roles and mediums, she’s exactly the kind of star we want to lead us in the current blockbuster age. Audiences are sick of exceptionally talented actors and film-makers of colour being discussed purely in terms of potential. We love our Chrises but we’ve got enough of them for now. Why not let a truly talented individual who relishes the challenge and visibility of blockbuster geekdom be centred in this narrative? Besides, few others do it looking as good as Lupita.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.
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