March 1, 1983 – Lupita Nyong’o:
“The fear of failure was just as high as the high of success, because I could fall, and I could fall far.”
It is an astonishing accomplishment for an East African woman with an exotic accent and very dark skin color, who had a rather late start on a career, to become the most famous female African actor in the world and an Academy Award winner.
She even managed to avoid the cliché “Oscar Jinx”, that mysterious curse that has plagued past winners. You would think that winning the film industry’s most prestigious award would shoot its winner to the top of the A-list, yet oddly, many Oscar-winning performers have seen their careers plummet as soon as they put that statue on their mantle.
I was so dumbstruck by her enticement, elegance and eloquence with her acceptance speech at the 2014 Academy Awards:
“Thank you to the Academy for this incredible recognition. It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon Northup, thank you for telling her story and your own.”
Yet, I still thought to myself: “Hollywood better find a terrific follow-up project for this stunning actor.” Although Nyong’o followed her Academy Award-winning performance in her feature film debut, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013), with a smallish role as a flight attendant in a preposterous action flick Non-Stop (2014), she only had to wait for another year before becoming a Disney Studio’s regular with a major role in the highest-grossing film of 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, followed by the biopic Queen Of Katwe (2016) with David Oyelowo, and the live-action/CGI remake of the studio’s The Jungle Book (2016).
After Nyong’o Oscar win, Kenyan and Mexican entertainment news outlets fought over which country got to “claim” her. Nyong’o tried to clear that up, saying:
“I’ve seen the quarrels over my nationality, but I’m Kenyan and Mexican at the same time. So again, I am Mexican-Kenyan and I am fascinated by carne asada tacos.”
Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, but her parents are Kenyan. She grew up in Kenya, and at 16-years-old, her parents sent her back to live in Mexico, so she could learn Spanish. Still, the press sometimes referred to her as a Mexican actor or an African actor, or an African-American actor.
Nyong’o started her film career working behind the scenes as a production assistant on Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener (2005), The Namesake (2006) directed by Mira Nair, and Salvatore Stabile’s Where God Left His Shoes (2007). She said she was inspired to become an actor by Ralph Fiennes, the star of The Constant Gardener. She directed and produced In My Genes (2009) a documentary about the discrimination of Kenya’s albino population, and appeared in the Kenyan television series Shuga, an MTV Africa/UNICEF production about HIV/AIDS.
Her parents were in political exile in Mexico when she was born, but when they returned to Kenya, her father became member of the country’s senate while her mother was an executive with the Africa Cancer Foundation.
Nyong’o earned a BFA in Film from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2003. In 2010, she returned to the USA and received a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama in 2012, having performed in productions at the school’s Yale Repertory Theatre. Just a few weeks before graduating, she found out she had been cast in 12 Years A Slave.
Produced by Brad Pitt, the film is based on the 19th century narrative written by Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Northern free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Nyong’o plays Patsey, a young slave who befriends Northup while being abused by a plantation master and his wife, chillingly portrayed by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson. Nyong’o was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award and two Screen Actors Guild Awards, winning Best Supporting Actress. She was only the sixth black person to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first African to win the award, the first Mexican to win that award, and the first Kenyan to win any Oscar. She was the 15th female to win an Oscar for a debut performance.
Nyong’o also became a fashion icon that award season, with red-carpet appearances and photographs in Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, In Style and W magazines. Nyong’o’s appearance in the November 2017 issue of Grazia U.K. brought a lot of controversy, after she pushed back at the magazine for retouching her photo by smoothing out her hair to look more European. The magazine apologized.
Nyong’o made her NYC stage debut in autumn 2015 with the Public Theater’s production of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, a harrowing story of the struggles of several Liberian women during civil war. It transferred to Broadway the following year and both the play and Nyong’o received Tony Award nominations.
Now, Nyong’o is a huge global star who with two Disney franchises: Star Wars with Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) the highest-grossing film of last year, and the new Marvel adaptation of Black Panther, an immediate gigantic box-office smash when it opened on President’s Day weekend bringing in over $360 million worldwide, and as I write this on Wednesday, $750 million worldwide, shattering stereotypes about the limitations of marketing a film with a mostly black cast, and a global hit that dares to ask what does it truly mean to be African? Its Afro-aesthetics and unapologetic black swagger has none of that usual wise black characters that are there just to teach white people a valuable life lesson.
Nyong’o just wrapped an Australian film, Little Monsters. She has stated that she would welcome the chance to return to Broadway. She is producing and starring in a miniseries adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, about a young woman who leaves military-led Nigeria for America.
She supports WildAid, an organization that helps protect elephants and Mother Health International, providing relief for pregnant women in areas of disaster, war and poverty.
Nyong’o resides in Brooklyn. She is fluent in Spanish, Luo, English, and Swahili.
In October, Nyong’o wrote an op-ed for The NY Times, revealing that Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed her twice in 2011, while she was a student at Yale. She vowed that she would never work with Weinstein and she turned down a role in his movie Southpaw (2015). Nyong’o also wrote about her commitment to work for women directors and male feminist directors who had not abused their power.
At the Essence Black Women In Hollywood event in 2014, she gave a speech on the beauty of black women and talked about her insecurities. She has now appeared on four Vogue covers, the first black actor to do so, an ironic twist for a woman who claims that:
“There is a part of me that will always feel unattractive”.