Lupita Nyong’o… the Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised, Yale educated actress and filmmaker took Hollywood and popular culture by storm, after her breakout role as Patsey in the film adaptation of the memoir and slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave. Making the red carpet rounds at various press junkets, social events, and awards shows, Lupita’s gracious demeanor and impeccable sense of style has taken people’s breath away. The media seems hooked and denizens of social media drool whenever images of her swathed in colorful couture, looking radiant, hit the internet.
Lupita is poised to become a bona fide Hollywood A-lister, and her growing popularity symbolizes the type of universality not often afforded to women and girls —especially working actresses — who exist in skin like hers and whose brand of black isn't 'exotic other'.
And while most people, particularly black women, are finally glad to see the likes of Lupita Nyong’o take center stage to much fanfare, others in the black community expressed a myriad of dissenting opinions ranging from confusion and indifference, to flat-out unimpressed and insulting.
Shortly after delivering an inspiring acceptance speech at the 7th annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon – where Nyong’o read parts of a letter she received from a young girl who considered buying a skin-bleaching product called Whitenicious, right before the media buzz surrounding Lupita had reached her, and where the actress admitted to having felt similar feelings of self-hatred as a young girl — Lupita went on to win an Oscar (for best supporting actress) at this year’s Academy Awards and gave another emotional speech, making sure to pay homage to the woman who’s life she portrayed and dispense this useful gem: “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid,” as folks cheered her on from the audience and through their TVs.
But despite the proud feeling of seeing a talented black actress (of Kenyan extraction) transcend societal standards of acceptability, an undercurrent of dismay lurked beneath the surface. Some folks ‘meh’ed Lupita’s Academy Award win and decided to dissect her looks and hair instead: comparing her to a man (for sporting a closely cropped natural), while having the gall to juxtapose her image with pics of Amber Rose to provoke a 'dark skin vs light skin' debate, and even suggesting that she wasn't truly black or “beautiful enough” to warrant the buzz surrounding her work; that she was pandering to her white colleagues and that her award was tainted since she won it for having played a slave.
Others bandied about reasons why she incited black women and mainstream media to chorus, writing Lupita off as nothing more than a racial ‘fetish’ to satiate the white gaze, and likened Hollywood’s fascination with her to Europe’s exploitation of Saartjie Baartman.
Journalist, Marc Lamont Hill, came under fire recently, following a conversation he had with comedian W. Kamau Bell, about the ‘white tokenization’ of Lupita Nyong’o. Bell expressed hope that the actress doesn't fall prey to the Oscar curse and that she goes on to act in other diverse parts — (so far, Lupita's reportedly in talks to play a lead female role in Star Wars: Episode VII and to star in a screen adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book, Americanah) — but not before positing that black women only get to “peak for a couple of weeks, to which Hill said, “She seems like the next thing that white people like; she’s become like a fetish already.”
Gina McCauley, founder of the blog What About Our Daughters and unyielding advocate for black women and girls, was having none of it and publicly took Marc Lamont Hill to task on her Facebook and Twitter pages, writing,
“… I did want to point out these two black men warning about the dangers of white people liking a black woman. Kamau Bell is married to a white woman and implies in his comedy routine that he married her because black women are “hostile.” Marc Lamont Hill calls Lupita a “Fetish.” And they are doing this on a platform controlled by a white woman. What is clear is that these two black men have a problem with anyone paying attention to black women who aren't Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, or a “star” of the Real Hip Hop Basketball Wives of Decatur.”
McCauley’s critique of Marc Lamont Hill’s and W. Kamau Bell’s comments isn't without merit, since anything black women do comes under close scrutiny (especially by black men). Gina's dismantling of his comments seemed to leave enough of an indelible mark on Hill that she was amongst a panel of guests on HuffPost Live (which also included Dr. Yaba Blay) for a follow-up discussion. Gina didn't back down and remained resolute in holding Hill accountable for his ‘fetish’ rationale.
While I understand Marc Lamont-Hill’s uneasiness about Nyong’o falling prey to the white gaze and how insidious the glare can be, I also found his ‘she’s a fetish’ comment problematic, as I do much of the commentary dissecting Lupita’s allure.
It falls within the same realm of judgment and derision that followed, during the emergence of Academy Award nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe, for not only having dark skin, but for being overweight and daring to be confident in her plus-size body. While Sidibe’s turn as an abused, marginalized teen mother and sexual assault survivor named Precious evoked a sense of uneasiness for a slew of understandable reasons (most of which revolve around director, Lee Daniels), some of the most scathing and nonsensical comments continue to come from the same folks who never expected Sidibe to continue working in Hollywood after Precious, and so will jeeringly call her 'Precious' as a way to strip her of her actual name and humanity as a black woman and working actress, because she doesn't look the part.
In a culture where dark-skinned black women, actresses, and entertainers are invisible or erased entirely, I'm flummoxed by people who claim not to ‘get the hype’ surrounding Lupita or why they’d want a woman, whose presence empowers a generation of young black girls having to navigate the politics of colorism, to fade into obscurity, because they're discomfited by her rise to stardom.
It’s troubling that Lupita’s popularity has become a political hot-button issue and that there only seems to be room for a very specific black female aesthetic… which rarely ever deviates from its usual formula of: equal measures of Paula Patton, Beyonce, and Rashida Jones... shake, bake, and repeat.
Also, I've got to side-eye multi-racial black actresses who reap the benefits of skin-privilege and are cast in roles as romantic leads or kick-ass action heroines, who continue to trivialize and deny the difficulties darker-skinned black actresses have with getting cast in sizable roles that aren't laden with black female pathology, or with just being conspicuous without being excoriated for it.
Viola Davis has spoken about the extra hurdles dark-skinned actresses have to overcome in order to be respected not just by the industry, but by the media and the black community. In the wake of news stories where little black girls are ostracized by school administrators for how they look and black female improv performers aren't deemed 'talented enough' to be played by actual black women, media representation matters; even actor, Denzel Washington reiterated this to his own daughter.
Seeing Viola Davis beaming on the red carpet at the 2012 Oscars in her emerald green Vera Wang gown, where she also debuted her natural hair, matters. Danai Gurira's potrayal of Michonne in The Walking Dead (especially now that the character is fleshed out) matters.
Seeing Lupita spinning on the red carpet in her ‘Nairobi blue’ Prada dress and gracing magazine covers, matters. So to disregard the work she’s done to reach this point in her career and reduce her moment to nothing more than her being ‘a fetish’ for white folks and an obsession for supposed ‘insecure dark-skinded’ black women, is disingenuous and willfully obtuse; particularly when actors like Idris Elba, Don Cheadle, and Kevin Hart get to enjoy mainstream success without there being some ulterior motive behind it. And it reinforces how much more unpacking there is to do in our community, of the images we place value on, and those many find polarizing and that elicit visceral reactions.
Lupita’s popularity may not matter to you, and that’s fine. But it doesn't nullify the impact she’s having on young black women and girls who find merit in seeing someone who looks like them, win at her craft.
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