Of the five feature films Lupita Nyong’o has appeared in during her short but highly visible career as an actress, you don’t see her face in two of them. One of the roles is a bit-part in a Liam Neeson action movie, and another is the starring role in a sadly underseen Disney drama. The first of these films, her debut, is the one that landed her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. In less than five years, Lupita Nyong’o has become a rarity: A black woman in Hollywood with true influence yet a fraction of the screen time her white counterparts receive; an adored public figure whose face is seldom seen on-screen; a major player in one of the world’s biggest franchises who is never exclusively billed as such. Few actresses, particularly women of colour, in this business have managed to navigate the treacherous routes that she has, all while maintaining a major degree of control over her work, her image and the media messaging surrounding her.
While looking for a young black actress to play Patsey, a slave who Solomon Northrup encounters while at a plantation in his memoir 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen saw over a thousand actors and couldn’t find the right one for the role. Nobody had the ‘majestic grace’ he was looking for, nobody seemed to have the range to embody the beleaguered grace or raw anguish of Patsey. When he watched Lupita’s audition tape, made while she was still studying at Yale, it was a moment of revelation, wherein he ‘just kind of rubbed my eyes in disbelief and needed someone else to confirm what I was seeing.’ He later invited her to audition, comparing her presence to Grace Jones, and several weeks later she was offered the part. It’s the kind of star-making story that would feel at home in any Hollywood picture, but such success narratives are seldom afforded to black women, especially in their first movie. Nyong’o is comfortably middle class - her father is a Kenyan diplomat - but the intersections of race and class are tricky under the shadow of white supremacy. What is striking about Nyong’o’s performance in 12 Years a Slave is how raw and almost terrifying it is. It’s a performance of unflinching humanity and one that could easily have been nothing but pain. That’s in large part due to the fantastic work of McQueen but once can’t overlook the magnitude of what Nyong’o has been tasked with accomplishing: This is a performance based on the reality of a woman’s life and suffering, skilful but with the freshness and spontaneity of a non-actor. The film is not short of brilliant work and Nyong’o is well supported by a stellar ensemble, but she’s easily the brightest among them, magnetic and empathetic and noble. It’s clear the filmmakers knew what kind of performance and future star they had on their hands, but it’s also obvious that Lupita knew what that meant, and what would come.
Winning an Oscar is a long-term game. You can’t just do something as simple as put in the best performance of the year in your designated category: You have to do the work. That includes endless interviews, charming the talk-show circuit, attending various events and knowing every face, and making sure everyone remembers who you are. When you’re a debut star, that’s made all the harder, but while on the awards trail for 12 Years a Slave, Lupita managed to redefine the game to the point where her red carpet appearances may have made her a household name more than the movie itself. Few actresses have leveraged fashion to success in the way Nyong’o has. Every red carpet she appeared on from the film’s premiere to the Oscars was an unforgettable sight, with close to the whole rainbow of colours on display and styles that caught everyone’s eye. Who could forget the red cape dress from the Golden Globes, or the teal Gucci number with the floral top she wore to the SAG Awards? You began to look forward to seeing what she wore next, and that was part of her power. Her performance was stunning and utterly deserving of the award but great work has lost in the past to better players of the Oscar race, so Lupita made sure she was number one across the board. That may seem frivolous to some, but in an industry where appearance is everything, and dark skinned black women are so often shunned or ignored on that basis, Lupita helped to redefine Hollywood beauty during her red carpet season, and that’s impacted her career as much as her work in 12 Years a Slave.
Now, she was an Oscar winner and a bona fide It Girl, a term that’s difficult to define beyond the notion of a woman just having it and everyone understanding what that means. Whatever it is, Lupita certainly has it: She’s beautiful, charming, a magnetic presence on and off-screen, a fashion darling, and a figure of vaulting ambition. She’s also a woman who is keenly aware of the weight of responsibility and leadership on her shoulders. It is the gift and the curse of being one of the few black women to win an acting Oscar: When you’re so alone in that group, everyone watches you for guidance and the implicit assertion that you are the voice for that entire community. In her Oscar speech, Lupita made note of that fact quietly, by sending a message to ‘every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid’.
Shortly after winning the Oscar, Nyong’o was appointed the first black model to represent Lancôme, which offered her an immense career and financial boon (nowadays, it’s not uncommon for actresses to make more money on fashion and cosmetics deals than the films they make), but also a chance to be a leader in redefining beauty to the world (she has appeared on the cover of American Vogue no fewer than three times). Fashion is a notoriously white world, but it was Lupita who ruled the red carpet that year, and now she had the chance to do the same with cosmetics, which has had major dark skinned black women featured in campaigns but only sparingly unless the products are aimed at a black audience or they’ve been photoshopped into whiteness, as L’Oreal infamously did with Beyonce. Lupita’s Lancôme ads are beautiful and noticeably her. That’s her eyes, her vibrant smile, and most importantly, her dark skin tone. In a speech at the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, Nyong’o read from a letter she received from a dark skinned girl who was ready to buy skin-bleaching cream until she saw Nyong’o rise to the top of Hollywood, before relating her own childhood experiences of being bullied for her ‘night-shaded skin’ and praying to be made lighter by God. She continues to call out Eurocentric beauty standards forced upon her, as seen recently when she condemned Grazia Magazine for photoshopping out her hair. You cannot be what you cannot see, and Nyong’o being a presence in pop culture and the beauty world has made an undeniable impact on our world, bigger than many of us may realise.
That’s partly what makes it so sad that we’ve seen so little of her face on-screen since her Oscar win. She voiced Mowgli’s wolf mother in The Jungle Book and played space pirate Maz Kanata in the long-awaited and supremely successful Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You don’t see her face in either: The first is voice-over and the second motion-capture. She’s very good in both, and she talked about wanting to do a mo-cap performance to experience the kind of freedom from appearances that actors are seldom afforded, one can’t overlook the strange trend of Hollywood not allowing us to see black actors. Think Idris Elba under all those prosthetics for the majority of Star Trek Beyond (and having three separate voice-over roles in the biggest animated films of that year) or Zoe Saldana greened up for Gamora, or Paula Patton as the half-orc in Warcraft Kyle Buchanan from Vulture called out this problem in a 2016 piece, and it’s Lupita whose omission from the visual narrative of big budget Hollywood that feels the most unfair. Winning an Oscar is supposed to open every door to you, but not even reaching the peak of the mountain can make Hollywood get over its own white supremacy.
That’s not to say that Nyong’o has disappeared or been denied incredible opportunities. Indeed, she has taken the initiative and wielded her newfound clout in striking ways, using it to get oft-untold stories onto stage and screen. There was Eclipsed, the off-Broadway play she brought to New York, helped transfer to Broadway and nabbed a Tony nomination in the process, and there was the sadly underseen Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair’s biopic of a Ugandan chess champion, produced by Disney and co-starring David Oyelowo. These stories saw Nyong’o, an African woman, playing African women and telling indelibly African stories that are free of the white gaze (both are also women centred and directed by women). There are no white saviours, the settings aren’t sanitised or forcibly moulded into inspirational lessons for white spectatorship: They’re stories of black women, and damn if they aren’t few and far between in the industry. Hollywood wouldn’t come to her so she carved her own way.
She has to do that a lot. Last month, as the allegations of sexual assault at the hands of producer Harvey Weinstein mounted up, Nyong’o told her story in an eloquent, detailed and gut-wrenching piece for the New York Times. In it, she goes into the nitty-gritty not only of what she alleges Weinstein did to her, but dissects the specific tools of his power plays. She notes his charm and magnetic personality, but also the way he would consistently dictate the rules of interaction, and how she would try to move around them, such as when he offered to give her a massage. Of the seemingly countless women coming forward with Weinstein stories, some of them the biggest names in the industry, Lupita stood alone as the only black actress to tell her story publicly, reminding us all that even at this tipping point in our culture, there are different expectations of safety and trust for women across the spectrum of race. Nowhere was this driven home more than when Weinstein’s representative released a statement to specifically dispute her telling of events. Nobody else’s, not one of the more famous women or ones with more violent allegations (he denied Ashley Judd’s claims but that was at the earliest point in the ongoing story): Just the black woman’s story.
Nyong’o has a packed schedule ahead of her. She’s now part of the Marvel Extended Universe as a cast member in the upcoming Black Panther movie, and she is currently filming a zombie rom-com called Little Monsters with Josh Gad, which will give her a chance to stretch her comedic muscles, and let’s not forget the epic heist movie featuring her and Rihanna that Twitter willed into existence. That whole The Last Jedi thing looks promising too. When I asked my Twitter followers what came to mind when they thought of the celeb of the week, as I do every time I write one of these, this was the first instance in which every comment was not only positive but glowing in their enthusiasm. Not one doubter or apathetic shrug came in the replies. Lupita has that kind of charm: She’s alluring, charismatic, talented, beautiful, caring, and very easy to root for. When she succeeds, it’s not a one-woman story: She shines and lifts up others with her.