Unless you’ve been deliberately hiding under a rock these past few weeks, you have heard the name Lupita Nyong’o coruscate throughout the film and media world. Nyong’o is the “breakout” actress of the season, making her American debut in the Golden Globe winning Best Drama and Oscar Nominated film 12 Years a Slave. She was born in Mexico, raised for several years in Kenya, and earned an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama. The media world is smitten by Lupita – she’s graced the red carpet numerous times in arguably some of the best ensembles (girrrl, that cape!) and she has a very charming, humble demeanor that makes her all the more beautiful.
My first encounter with Lupita was in a dark theatre as I watched 12 Years a Slave. I had recently seen the film Kinky Boots, so I was really excited to see Mr. Chiwetel Ejiofor grace the screen as the front man in an amazing story. I’m also an avid member of the CumberCollective, so Benedict Cumberbatch was quite the incentive as well. I was ecstatic to see Adepero Oduye (Pariah, Lifetime’s Steel Magnolias) alongside Ejiofor as Eliza. And then there was Patsey – the hardest working slave on the plantation, a victim of rape and jealous wrath from Edwin and Mistress Epps. Lupita’s Patsey was a portrait of fear, strength, pain, and the deepest of sorrows. When she pleaded with Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup to drown her in the river and put her out of her misery, the desperation was so palpable, it hurt. Nyong’o had an admirer in me the moment I walked out of that theatre – and I’m clearly not alone.
And then we began to learn more about Miss Nyong’o and to discover the woman behind the character. Without a doubt, her sense of style is incredible. When I think of Lupita, I think “stunning” and “regal” – she’s just so beautiful. Her body is fantastically sculpted and she knows how to dress it (or at least, her stylists do and she wears it all really well). This might seem very inconsequential and rather disingenuous, but speaking as a woman of color, it really isn’t so. I read an article months ago about the cinematography in 12 Years a Slave and how, apart from being cinematically captivating in its own right, the film captured the skin tones of the actors in ways celluloid had previously almost never managed to. In a business where Caucasian skin tones and standards of beauty are mostly, almost exclusively, celebrated, audiences can revel in the glowing, melanin-rich skin of Lupita Nyong’o and not classify it as “other.” I’ve seen countless photographs of the actress and so many people comment on how beautiful her skin is, a black beauty from Kenya. For those who argue that her skin color should not be an issue, let me put it into perspective. Lupita herself accredits Whoopi Goldberg’s performance in The Color Purple as an inspiration:
Whoopi looked like me, she had hair like mine, she was dark like me. I’d been starved for images of myself. I’d grown up watching a lot of American TV. There was very little Kenyan material, because we had an autocratic ruler who stifled our creative expression.
Whoopi Goldberg accredits actress Nichelle Nichols as Lieutnant Nyota Uhura in Star Trek as her inspiration, citing the same reason: she saw herself, someone who looked like her on the screen. I never advocate needing film or television to validate oneself as a person, but it’s an issue of visibility that minorities know all too well. So I’m proud of Lupita for acknowledging her culture, her heritage, and dressing that beautiful tone of hers in such complementary fashions.
Before writing this post, I have to admit that I had a difficult time encapsulating just why I admire and appreciate Lupita Nyong’o so much. I loved her in 12 Years a Slave and I live for the fabulous outfits she chooses to wear, but there has to be more. And I think what it is that I find so enchanting is her potential – just how much she has to offer as an actress and filmmaker. I looked her up a bit and learned that she actually worked as a Production Assistant on a few films after her undergrad, and she also completed a documentary entitled In My Genes, wherein she documents the lives of several Albinos in Kenya, as part of her thesis for her M.F.A. She is fluent in Spanish, having returned to Mexico at age 16 to learn the language. Her father is a senator back in Kenya, so she claims: “I grew up in the limelight and being the child of someone famous, so my relationship with fame is not bedazzled.” Also, I just learned she is 30 years old – a fact I was flabbergasted to discover because girl looks amazing. Of course, 30 is not old, I repeat 30 is not old, but I certainly thought she was no more than mid-twenties (“black don’t crack” is the phrase I keep hearing. *Stefon hands* Accurate). She is a young, but quite mature actress with determination, spunk, and genuine talent to take her places.
I’m so excited to see where Lupita’s career goes. She is appearing as a flight attendant in the new mystery/thriller Non-Stop, alongside Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore, due out at the end of February. And of course, she has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the upcoming 86th Annual Academy Awards (airing March 2nd). I’m rooting for you lady.