Piggybacking Nijla’s piece on Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and seeing black romance on screen, I’ve been watching as Lupita’s star has risen almost overnight, from a relative unknown to quite possibly the most talked about actress in the business today, thanks to her stellar performance in Steve McQueen’s acclaimed drama “12 Years A Slave.”
She’s been featured in almost every fashion magazine of any significance, becoming a style icon, as designers all seem to be scrambling to put their designer gowns and accessories on her.
And deservedly so. She’s a stunning woman, in incredible physical shape, and, for a black woman like myself, and others who look like me, she represents us. And by that I mean, I’m a dark-skinned black woman with what we could say are traditional African features, and for black women like me, it’s so incredibly refreshing to see a woman who not only looks like Lupita, but who is also well-educated, intelligent, as well as grounded and sensitive, eschewing certain stereotypes, on the screen and in real life.
She’s a lady.
Just watch her in any interview, and see how captivating she is, and how audiences seem to be enthralled by her. She has presence, undeniably-so, and it’s no shock that the world seems to be so taken by her.
But what I’m most concerned about is what all this means for her career as an Actress! I feel like that fact is something that’s getting lost in all the wonderful TV, print and online coverage she’s been receiving.
She is, first and foremost, an actress. That’s what got our attention in the first place, isn’t it? Her talent as an actress. Her memorable and courageous performance in “12 Years A Slave.”
Maybe I’m jumping the gun here, but, while I’m very happy that she’s getting all this attention, I’m concerned that it won’t necessarily lead to actual work – as in, Acting work. At this stage, after all the media attention she’s received since “12 Years A Slave” debuted on the film festival circuit last September, I would think that she would’ve booked at least a couple of new projects by now. But no announcements have been made on that front. Sure, she’ll appear in the Liam Neeson airplane thriller “Non-Stop” which opens this Friday, but that was something she did before all the “12 Years A Slave” hype began. And her role in that film is a peripheral one.
I’d like to see the same kind of post-hype job bookings that Jennifer Lawrence, the actress who appears to be her main competition in the Best Supporting Actress category this year, enjoyed after she became the “it” girl when she was nominated for her performance in “Winter’s Bone,” in 2011, which was her break-out performance (she hadn’t done much before that film). And it didn’t take very long for the work to come – good work too – which put her even more in the spotlight, leading to even more roles and awards, starting with “X-Men: First Class,” and then landing the starring role in one of the biggest movie franchises in history, “The Hunger Games,” and also “Silver Linings Playbook.” All these roles came around the same time, not very long after “Winter’s Bone.”
3 years later, she’s become the young white actress whose name seems to come up on every project that calls for a young white actress. It makes me wonder what Lupita Nyong’o’s acting career is going to look like in 3 years. Once the Oscars come and go, and the press around her starts to fade, as the media goes looking for the next young actor or actress to cover their websites and magazines with, where will that leave Lupita?
In interviews, she’s shared that she’s taking meetings, and considering various projects, but hasn’t signed up for anything yet. Although it’s not public information what those projects are, and how much she’s actually really being considered for future work by film studios and production companies. But I really hope it’s work that’s worthy of her talent, and that she doesn’t end up playing stock characters like “the best black friend,” for example, or she isn’t type-cast as the long-suffering black woman in the next period drama.
She actually might end up with a career that has her wearing several different hats: from acting, to maybe a contract with a cosmetics, skin care, fragrance company or a fashion designer (several actresses have those, including Halle Berry’s campaign with Revlon), to writing and directing her own work. So maybe she’ll be able to use all of her talent in a myriad of ways, effortlessly shifting from one world to another, and she doesn’t need to have a stellar acting career for us to say she’s a success. And I suppose it also all depends on what Lupita wants for herself, which only she, and those close to her, really know with certainty.
But she’s expressed her love for the craft of acting on numerous occasions, and her Yale Drama School education speaks to her desire to be a working actress. So one can only assume that’s something of great importance to her at the moment.
I put her in a similar category as Danai Gurira. Not because both are dark-skinned African women with short hair cuts, but because they are multiple-threats. They act, but also direct and write. It may not be widely known that Danai has had a successful stage career as an actress and a writer, and continues to do so. I think it’s almost a given nowadays for any actress worth their salt and with varied talents, to fully explore every possible opportunity. But I think it becomes even more crucial to do so if you’re not white. I can’t help but believe that, based on history, white actresses of Danai’s and Lupita’s stature and pedigree will probably be at the top of every casting director’s list today, and will be in consideration for so many top jobs, the way their Caucasian contemporaries are.
As I said, maybe I’m jumping the gun and panicking a little too soon, and there’s absolutely nothing to worry about here. But we’ve been here before. As Nijla aptly stated in her piece, wondering what obstacles an actress like Lupita (and actors like Michael B. Jordan, and productions of refreshing, contemporary stories about black people) might face:
The same systemic obstacles that prevent any Octavia Butler novels from being adapted into films, or kept Theodore Witcher from making another film after Love Jones
. The same reasons that prompted Viola Davis to speak about the lack of roles offered to her
, and why certain young, talented actresses like Adepero Oduye and Emayatzy Corinealdi, aren’t racking up roles left and right like their white counterparts.
I just simply hope that a year or two from now, we’re not writing pieces on this blog, and elsewhere, wondering what happened to Lupita Nyong’o’s acting career. It would be an absolute shame if Hollywood, as well as independent producers, don’t exploit her talent as an actress.
She has the physical presence, and has displayed a vulnerability that would make her perfect for a variety of roles – from an action movie heroine, to the star of a romantic comedy, to the lead in a complex character study, to a historical drama or historical epic.
I’d love to see Oprah Winfrey turn all that adulation she clearly has for Lupita into a role or two for Lupita, in projects produced by Oprah.
She really should win the Oscar in her category, but, given that Jennifer Lawrence is proving to be stubborn competition, that’s not at all a guarantee. So I wouldn’t say Lupita has the Best Supporting Actress Oscar locked up just yet.
But even if she does win, as has been well-documented on this blog
in the past with other black Oscar winners, it may not do very much to lift her career prospects.
So here’s hoping that all this wonderful press she’s been receiving for the past 6 months (and which seems to have really amplified in the last few weeks) eventually leads to a barrage of great acting roles for her. She’s more than a style icon.
She’s a talented actress.
Raquel Lewis is an independent writer and lover of cinema, working and living in New York City.