The Hollywood Reporter Wonders If Lupita is Too Dark for Hollywood? (Yes, Seriously)


Now that Hollywood’s award season has come to a close, perhaps it was inevitable that the fawning over media darling and Academy Award winner for best supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o would come to an end as well. The Hollywood Reporter put the official nail in the cliched coffin with its latest print issue, which asks on its cover, “What Happens to Lupita Now? How to Turn an ‘Exotic’ Actress A-List.”

The question may sound odd to those of us who don’t consider Nyong’o “exotic.” She’s not some rare bird with colorful, fluffy feathers that no one’s ever seen outside the Amazon; she’s a dark-skinned black woman, who exist everywhere, even if there aren’t enough women who fit that description in Hollywood. That cover line is also eyebrow-raising because for months now, we’ve all watched Nyong’o grace red carpets, rack up awards big and small and collect magazine covers and feature stories that highlight her remarkable beauty, delightful personality and impeccable fashion. But, as the Hollywood Reporter points out, it takes more than great press (or clothes) to make a star.

“But now that the ball is over and the applause is dying down, what can Nyong’o really expect from Hollywood? While the stage would appear to be set for her to ascend to the A-list—just as Jennifer Lawrence did after her best actress win for Silver Linings Playbook last year—it’s not that simple,” the magazine points out. “There’s never been a black actress who has become the equivalent of a Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie.”

To be fair, several Academy Award-winning actresses have been cursed by their success. A 2012 story in Entertainment Weekly notes that the Oscar curse, which happens when an actress wins and then falls into oblivion, isn’t a trap reserved for black women. That article points out that actresses Renée Zellweger (1993Cold Mountain) and Kim Basinger (1997, L.A. Confidential) never rose to the lofty expectations after their Oscar wins.

But the Hollywood Reporter questions whether Nyong’o’s blackness and her dark complexion will further complicate her chances at reaching A-list status or even having a sustainable Hollywood career. It sounds harsh, but it’s a valid question. Despite being lauded as an “It Girl,”IMDb shows just one post-12 Years a Slave project on Nyong’o’s filmography, a minor role as a flight attendant in the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop.

In the article, a talent agent questions whether audiences can identify with Nyong’o because of her dark skin. “Would Beyoncé be who she is if she didn't look like she does?” Tracy Christian asked the Hollywood Reporter. "Being lighter-skinned, more people can look at her image and see themselves in her.”

Let us not pretend that when it comes to black women, Hollywood doesn’t overwhelmingly favor women with lighter complexions. However, the positive response to Nyong’o has been because of her unquestionable acting chops and because her beauty—short, textured hair and deep-hued skin—is a break from the norm. Contrary to popular belief, audiences do find beauty in a variety of complexions—yes, Hollywood, including darker complexions—and are eager to see more actresses who reflect the full scope of black beauty.

I believe Nyong’o’s biggest challenge moving forward won’t be her dark complexion but the limited roles that are afforded to black women in Hollywood.

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Lupita Nyong’o & What It Means to Be Black

Lupita Nyong'o When I posted a picture on my Instagram of newly minted Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o giving her acceptance speech at Sunday night’s awards ceremony, I didn’t know or even suspect that there was any question about whether she was black. The photo was of a beaming Nyong’o holding up her award in triumph. Her speech—especially the part where she said, “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”—moved me.

I, like many, had been rooting for her to win an Oscar as soon as the credits rolled on 12 Years a Slave. To me, Nyong’o’s win—and she said as much in her speech—was a win for black girls, black women and women of all colors everywhere.

I like the actress so much, I started referring to her as “Our Lady Lupita.” And I said so in thatInstagram caption, which read, “Black Girl Magic! Get you some. Congrats to Our Lady @lupitanyongo on her Oscar win!” Innocent enough, right?

Promptly, a follower responded, “Actually, she’s Mexican.” It was said as if Nyong’o couldn’t be black and Mexican at the same time. For anyone who is confused by this, I point you toward two documentaries, The Forgotten Roots and African Blood, which show that the Diaspora extends to Mexico, too.

But back to Nyong’o. Her father was a Kenyan professor who was teaching in Mexico when she was born. She also returned to the country when she was a teenager. Calling her Mexican isn’t technically inaccurate. But it’s not the whole story. She’s also Kenyan because both her parents are and because she was raised in Kenya.

And she’s black because—and I can’t believe I have to explain this—look at her. The deep-brown complexion, the wonderfully kinky hair and the full lips all fit the phenotype of the people colloquially called “black.” For me, that makes Nyong’o unquestionably a black woman, even if she hasn’t always felt that way.

“Having come to the United States was the first time that I really had to consider myself as being black and to learn what my race meant,” Nyong’o told Vogue. “Because race is such an important part of understanding American society.”

Not everyone defines “black” the same way. For some, it’s a race that extends across nationalities—i.e., the African Diaspora. For others it’s a way to describe the unique experience of African Americans. The people who fall into the “Lupita’s not black” camp are usually thinking of culture.

Then there are those who place nationality above everything else, which make them consider her Mexican-ness or Kenya-ness only. Nyong’o claims both, saying on the red carpet, “I am Mexican and Kenyan at the same time. I have seen that they are fighting over my nationality, but I insist I am Mexican Kenyan, and I am fascinated by tacos with roasted meat.”

But perhaps there’s something else at the root of this drive to define what Nyong’o really is. It seems that whenever a black woman is recognized for her beauty in America, there’s often a clamor to make her “other” or “exotic,” as if being “just” black isn’t good enough. There always has to be something more that explains why she’s considered a “great beauty.”


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