By Arturo R. García
As Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o's career prospects seemingly expand by the day, so, too, do the discussions surrounding her, with some fans imagining the sight of her stepping into some iconic franchises, and others side-eyeing the increased attention she’s been getting.
As The Mary Sue reported last week, artist Mark Brooks gave fans a bit of dream casting, imagining Nyong’o playing Storm of the X-Men. As of now, the role is slated to be played once again by Halle Berry in the upcoming X-movie, Days of Future Past. But with the film seemingly positioned as a way for 20th Century Fox to clear the decks and reboot the franchise, it’s not inconceivable that Nyong’o could play a “brand-new” incarnation of Ororo Munroe.
Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds went one step further, creating a change.org petition forally calling for Marvel Entertainment to cast Nyong’o in the role. Broadnax expanded on her request in a post for She Thrives, saying:
Storm’s lineage comes from Kenya. Her mother was a Kenyan priestess who descended from a long line of African witch-priestesses with white hair, blue eyes, and a natural gift for sorcery. Although Storm was born in Harlem, NY; she moved back to Cairo, Egypt. It was there where she picked up her African dialect. The image of Storm as the comic intended is a woman of Kenyan descent with dark skin and white hair. Lupita is now an Oscar-winning actress who is ready for a role that will continue to elevate her mainstream status in Hollywood. She’s incredibly gorgeous, a talented actress, can speak with a Kenyan accent (yes, she too is also from Kenya), and has the ‘name-billing cred’ to bring in audiences to the box office.
And as Coloures reported on Sunday, a separate campaign has taken shape on Twitter asking the MAC cosmetics line to feature Nyong’o as the centerpiece of her own ad campaign:
Lupita, who has become a media darling for her immense talent, flawless face and effortless style, has become a symbol for lack of representation of diverse beauty in the mainstream.
The hashtag was started by journalist Joan Morgan and Dr. Yaba Blay and has quickly gained steam. The women are calling for those who want to see it happen make our voices heard to the iconic cosmetics brand.
Perhaps unwittingly, Nyong’o herself set the stage for a budding movement like #LupitaForMAC in her acceptance speech at last week’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, where she received the award for Best Breakthrough Performance for her work in 12 Years A Slave:
Essence Magazine published the full transcript of her speech, but here’s a crucial excerpt:
I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty. Black beauty. Dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of “The Color Purple” were to me.
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.
Nyong’o's speech was quickly praised in critical circles, and activist W. Kamau Bell also noted its’ significance for her future in a Huffington Post Live interview on Friday.
“She seems to have an awareness of that, which is why the speech she gave was so amazing,” Bell told host Marc Lamont Hill. “She seems to have an awareness of wanting to own herself — no pun intended (12 Years A Slave). And it’s good if white people want to own you, it’s just bad when they actually do. So I think she’s going to be fine, I just hope the doors of the industry keep opening up for her so she can do things more diverse. I don’t want to see 13 Years A Slave from her.”
Hill summed up the “that” in question rather bluntly, telling Bell, “She’s become like a fetish already.”
Specifically, to white people. Charish Halliburton expanded on this feeling of suspicion at The Motley News not long after Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. While conceding that her cynicism might be dangerous, Halliburton says:
I’m also weirded out by the onslaught of white people who are just plain gob-smacked by her exquisiteness. I’ve received an enormous amount of trending Facebook articles from various fashion sources that seem almost amazed by how beautiful Lupita is. It irks me that people don’t find it ironic how Nyong’o has preformed one of the most gut-wrenching representations of an enslaved black woman. Her character, Patsey, shows the reality of an enslaved body; this body is allowed to be ogled, worked to death, beaten, and raped. This body does not belong to Patsey and for some reason, it feels as though Nyong’o's body doesn’t belong to her either.
Not too much has changed in regards to the black female body. Society still turns a blind eye to the raped black female body, but leers at the black female body on display. Whether it be in a Miley Cyrus music video, on the cover of King Magazine, or on a red carpet, black female bodies are still objects to be commodified. Designers have fallen all over themselves to drape their designs on Nyong’o's black body. When commentators talk about her many red carpet looks, I find myself wondering: “Are they talking about how lovely the dress is, being held up by a black mannequin? Or are they talking about Lupita’s fascinating dark body and face?”
But for her part, Stacia L. Brown makes the case that the rosy reception Nyong’o has been getting throughout this past Hollywood awards season is actually a good omen:
She is not saddled with centuries of diminishing returns. Accordingly, Lupita is a carefree black girl par excellence — and we have yet to see what the career of a black actress this successful with just one feature-length role under her belt, and this comparatively unburdened by Hollywood’s racist legacy, looks like. (Consider other recent black American actress nominees with one role their belts — Quevenzhane Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe — and how their reception in Hollywood and media compares to Lupita Nyong’o’s. Neither swanned through her awards season unscathed by racist, appearance-policing coverage — and Sidibe is still the subject of think pieces that actually use their headlines to implore that the public treat her with more respect.)
It is this lack of similar encumbrance — perhaps above all else — that excites me so about Nyong’o. We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theatre pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role.
Carrying Brown and Halliburton’s point a little further, the conversation around Nyong’o will give her next major role more heft, and make it seemingly more crucial than the usual post-Oscar turn: if “mainstream” America was willing to fall for her after 12 Years, how willing will it be to follow her to, say, a romantic comedy — not to mention one that wouldn’t pair her with an industry-standard White Leading Man?
If she does manage to be cast as Storm, how would Marvel and Fox adjust for her star power opposite X-franchise mainstay Hugh Jackman? What would the reaction be if, like Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie, Nyong’o was cast in a reimagining of a film once centered around a white character? The emergence of Nyong’o to a public persona akin to “America’s Sweetheart” may be setting up an important look at where Hollywood — and its audiences — want to go with their conceptualization of not only beauty, but marketability. Here’s hoping Nyong’o can find the best possible path for herself in the midst of it.