By Dapo Oshiyemi
There are not many people who wouldn’t want to be Lupita Nyong’o right now, only a few months ago this Kenyan actress was a complete unknown, then a great performance as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ followed by a best supporting actress Oscar and she is the apple of the eyes of millions of film lovers the world over, with every major film Producer and Director in Hollywood knocking on her door but looking at those who have come before her, one can see a road ahead laden with obstacles for this young African Actress. The great Denzel Washington once said:
“You are black, you’re a woman and you’re dark-skinned at that, so you have to be a quadruple-triple threat, you have to learn how to act, dance, sing and move on stage”.
Denzel was actually talking about his own daughter and you can imagine the doors Denzel can open for this daughter. Viola Davis another one of those much underrated black talents when asked ‘How come The Help is your first leading role?’ replied:
“There are just not a lot of roles for black women. I’m a 46 year old black woman who doesn’t look like Halle Berry and Halle Berry is having a hard time”.
When asked an Hollywood agent recently said of Lupita’s prospects:
“There is a challenging lack of roles for darker-skinned actresses, there are even so few roles for women of colour; those roles are just not being written.”
This only reinforces the fact that Hollywood doesn’t really develop roles for black women and even when they do, they have long standing deep rooted prejudices dating as far back as the times of Nina Mae McKinney and Dorothy Dandridge that favours lighter complexion black actresses and that still holds today, after all “Would Halle Berry be who she is if she didn’t look like she does?”
So with the applause of the Oscars slowly becoming a distant memory, some say Lupita has the next two to three years and the choices she makes will be curial and career defining, so how does she make those choices, well, by studying the valuable lessons learnt by those who have gone before her.
Angela Bassett, Mo’Nique, Jenniffer Hudson, Gabourey Sidibe, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davies have all shown that with the right combination of script, role and direction they can produce Oscar winning performances but Hollywood mainly for commercial reasons will never make many of the types of movies that will allow black women to shine. Whoopi Goldberg is another such case of so near yet so far, following her best actress Oscar nomination for The Color Purple in 1985 she has not really played such a powerful character driven role since and even her Best supporting actress win in 1990’s Ghost was for a comedy type role.
Lupita will have to ruthlessly seek out those character driven roles being developed by very talented black writers and Directors, I not saying white writers and Directors cannot produce great black films but would The Godfather, Goodfellas and Schindler’s List be as great without the Italian and Jewish backgrounds of the talent behind them? Great roles for Lupita are more likely to come from a Spike Lee, Lee Daniel’s, John Singleton or some talented Black British or African than a David O. Russell or Christopher Nolan.
Halle Berry’s career on the other hand is an object lesson in don’t forget what made you successful in the first place, she followed her best actress Oscar win for the 2001 film Monster’s Ball with James Bond movie Die Another Day, X-Men series and 2004’s disastrous Catwoman, yes its alright to make sure you can pay the mortgage but if you want a successful career at the very top then you need to make your choices more balanced, you need those powerful character driven roles.
Black men are a good example of how to get to and stay at the very top, Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Samuel L Jackson have all managed this by making great character choices. Denzel for example won his first Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Glory in 1989 and managed to balance light weight films like Heart Condition with Great character driven films like Mo’Better Blues and Malcolm X, thanks to Spike Lee. While Lupita should certainly not turn down a Star Wars movie or a X –Men she must not forget what made her the darling of the industry in the first place and that will be no easy feat for a Black African woman in Hollywood but having said that, she has options available to her and must not fall into the trap of only looking within Hollywood, after all 12 Years a Salve was developed in the UK and Africa especially Nollywood, Nigeria’s multi-billion film industry maybe where that next Oscar winning role for her comes from, who knows.