What does Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win mean for black women in America?


Anyone who was lucky enough to see Lupita Nyong’o up on stage for Best Supporting Actress at this years 86th Academy Awards ceremony, might be with me in thinking that we should just give ALLthe awards to Lupita for her inspirational speech; one that highlights Hollywood’s shortcomings and will hopefully throw a few punches in the ongoing fight for racial and gender equality.

The 12 Years a Slave thesp bagged herself an Oscar for her shattering performance as Patsey – an enslaved woman whom Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) meets after being sold to Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) New Orleans plantation. It’s pretty fair to say that for the majority of viewers, Patsey is the character that lingers in the mind more disturbingly than even the movie’s protagonist.

Aside from her breakthrough performance in Steve McQueen’s third feature film, Lupita Nyong’o has been making her rounds on-screen at award shows and in glossy mags, parading her much-coveted fashion sense. On Sunday night, she graced the carpet with flows of ice-blue Prada; the ultimate goddess gown. But, the moment that we really fell in love with Lupita was during her speech on America’s perception of beauty. On collecting her award, Lupita read this with a very real humility:

I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.

The 30-year-old beauty went on to say that the thing that initially kick-started her self-confidence was her recognition of South Sudanese British supermodel Alek Wek, who first appeared on the catwalks at the age of 18 in 1995. Nyong’o recalls:

…And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty…

There’s a message there for all of us: No one else should define how we feel about ourselves. It’s too easy to get carried away in worshipping our favorite red-carpet regulars – stick thin and slathered in make-up, or photoshopped to within an inch of their lives – and following fashion labels’ depiction of what it means to be beautiful, what we should strive to be. This narrow conception of beauty has held so many women back from being comfortable with themselves.

Lupita Nyong’o’s success can help shine a light on a group of people who have been historically ill-treated solely because of the color of their skin. Steve McQueen wanted to spread his 12 Years a Slave message that “everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live, this award is dedicated to all those people who have endured slavery all over the world.” But if it takes supermodel Alek Wek to make someone like Lupita Nyong’o feel pretty, then imagine how much encouragement it could take for those who aren’t destined for Hollywood.

Lupita, who studied Film Studies and African Studies, once made a documentary about albinism in Kenya and – in talking about her discrimination-conscious project – also spoke about when she learned to consider herself ‘black’. She said:

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. Because race is such an important part of understanding American society.

Nyong’o, a Mexican-born, Kenyan actress, is easy to love for any number of reasons. Not least, though, because she’s a refreshing sight in a public media that tends to conceal the beauty of dark-skinned women, an acknowledged issue in Hollywood. African-American culture mag The Root argue that if Steve McQueen hadn’t made 12 Years a Slave, a lighter-skinned actress would have been cast in the role of Patsey:

Would Nyong’o be on Hollywood’s radar at all if not for her discovery by Steve McQueen, an Afro-British director of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent? To be more blunt: Would an American director have felt comfortable casting a woman of Nyong’o’s hue as the leading lady of a major Hollywood film? A quick look back at film history and a discussion with an expert on skin color in American culture indicates that this is unlikely.

Seventy-five years ago, Hattie McDaniel won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Not only was she the first black woman to win an Academy Award, McDaniel was also the first black woman who wasn’t a servant allowed to attend the ceremony.

Since 1939 and up until Lupita’s Oscar win at the weekend, only six black women (out of over 150 actresses) have won in either the Best Actress or the Best Supporting Actress categories. That’s around 4%. Sadly, these facts provide enough justification to support why this topic needs to be discussed.

Nyongo’s Oscar win is a significant milestone in recognising what it means to be ‘American.’ But, discrimination in America and especially Hollywood, unfortunately, doesn’t only manifest itself with skin color. There’s also a trend in Oscar-nominated movies to frame historical events through a patriarchal lens. Even with Django Unchained – the perfect opportunity for gender inclusion in a film addressing one kind of inequality – Tarantino failed in his task to create a strong, female protagonist where there was space for one. But after seeing Lupita Nyong’o take on the biographical slavery drama, we’re all reminded that there’s sometimes a need for these stories, told also from black women’s perspectives, highlighting the unmistakeable hardships that they faced, too.

Hollywood may or may not still favor lighter-skinned actresses, but Lupita’s success with 12 Years a Slave is truly inspiritng. Remember, in the words of a super-talented, beautiful Oscar-winner:

No matter where you’re from your dreams are valid.

As cheesy as it sounds in the context of my writing, there’s a big lesson here, guys. Let’s not miss it.


(Sources: EssenceTheRootTheProgressiveYouTube)

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