Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Is LUPITA the new black?

There has never been a black actress of Nyong'o's ebony skin tone to ascend to Hollywood A-list status. YOU CAN BET THAT WILL CHANGE SOON

  • Print
 Lupita Nyong'o, winner of the award for best actress in a supporting role in the movie 12 Years a Slave, applauds after getting her award engraved at the Governors Ball after the Oscars last Sunday.

CHRIS PIZZELLO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Lupita Nyong'o, winner of the award for best actress in a supporting role in the movie 12 Years a Slave, applauds after getting her award engraved at the Governors Ball after the Oscars last Sunday.

If there was any doubt left that Lupita Nyong'o is the Cinderella of this award season, it was erased by Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue. Not only did she land a slot on the issue's coveted cover (she was one of six black actors included this year), but an article about Hollywood's most powerful stylists dubbed her the actress most A-list designers are fighting to dress for the Oscars.

The way she's been embraced as a style-and-beauty icon and an A-list Hollywood ingenue is a milestone -- one she herself remarked on at Essence's Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, recounting her own gradual embrace of her beauty as a young girl and telling black girls of today to embrace their own beauty.

But here's a larger question: Would Nyong'o be on Hollywood's radar at all if not for her discovery by Steve McQueen, an African-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 colour in American culture indicates this is unlikely.

 

For starters, there has never been a black actress of Nyong'o's ebony skin tone to ascend to Hollywood A-list status. And among those black actresses who have succeeded in Hollywood with deeper skin tones, such as Grace Jones, they have not been positioned as leading ladies or, more specifically, objects of affection. Those roles have been concentrated among fairer actresses and those with more traditionally Eurocentric features, including Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, Shari Belafonte, Rae Dawn Chong, Cynda Williams, Halle Berry, Rosario Dawson, Thandie Newton, Zoe Saldana, Rashida Jones and Paula Patton -- a number of whom also identify as biracial or multiracial. On the small screen, at least, Gabrielle Union and Kerry Washington have enjoyed recent breakthroughs, but while neither woman is fair-skinned, they might not always be described as dark, either.

The challenges dark-skinned women face in a culture that celebrates fair skin was highlighted in the documentary Dark Girls. But the specific struggle that darker-skinned actresses face in Hollywood was highlighted at a panel on diversity in Hollywood that I moderated last year for New York Women in Film and Television. During the Q&A session, a darker-skinned actress raised the issue of skin-tone diversity, a moment that left the panel, made up of casting directors and producers of different races, virtually silent. The only really successful dark-skinned actress anyone could think of in that moment was Precious star Gabourey Sidibe, who, like Jones before her, is not being positioned as a leading lady.

Yaba Blay, co-director of Africana studies at Drexel University, says she was surprised the object of sexual and emotional obsession by the brutal slave owner (portrayed by Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years a Slave happened to be depicted by a darker actress. "I think in the American context, the way we talk about enslavement and rape, the image many of us get is, it was always a lighter-skinned woman or a woman considered 'exotic,' and we connect that to quadroon balls or creole identity," she says. "We get this image that who these European men were fascinated by were women who were somewhere in the middle [in terms of race and skin tone], exotic-looking women."

But what is truly groundbreaking about 12 Years a Slave, according to Blay, is that clearly, the man who owns her is obsessed with her in a way that does not simply denote power; he finds her beautiful. Blay, who is of Ghanaian ancestry, adds, "Without generalizing, perhaps African men do have a grounding, in seeing that the potential for beauty still exists in African women."

Had an American been at the helm of 12 Years a Slave, it seems unlikely Nyong'o or someone who looks like her would have been cast.

The lack of skin-colour diversity in American movies is noticeable, no matter the race of American directors -- after all, they're still American. As Jada F. Smith wrote for The Root, "good" male characters in Tyler Perry films tend to be lighter, while bad ones tend to be darker. She also pointed out that while those characters who are wounded, or doing the wounding, in Lee Daniels' Precious tend to be darker, the saviours -- portrayed by Mariah Carey, Paula Patton and Lenny Kravitz -- are lighter.

Perry and Daniels are not alone.

In most of Spike Lee's films, the object of beauty or obsession tends not to be darker-skinned. Think Cynda Williams in Mo' Better Blues, Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing and Rosario Dawson in 25th Hour. Even in Jungle Fever, although the plot focuses on an interracial relationship (a topic that was groundbreaking at the time), the black beauties who co-star are fair-skinned, including Lonette McKee, Veronica Webb and Halle Berry. To his credit, Lee tackled the skin-tone issue within the black community head-on in his film School Daze, which is rumoured to have a sequel in the works.

In Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, Denzel Washington's leading lady is played by Eva Mendes, a Latina who also plays opposite Will Smith in Hitch. And Fuqua cast biracial actress Shannon Kane as the ingenue in Brooklyn's Finest.

All these actresses are talented, but their looks conform to a very narrow definition of beauty. Blay, who is also the author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, points out that American directors who have shied away from casting darker actresses may not be reflecting their own bias. Instead, they may be reflecting what they perceive as a built-in beauty bias among the studios they need to finance their films, or the audiences they need to persuade to see them.

"Should Nyong'o achieve true superstardom," Blay says, "there could be widespread benefits for darker-skinned women. If Lupita gets signed by a L'Oréal or Cover Girl, I can finally look forward to some foundation that matches my skin colour."

McQueen, who discovered Nyong'o, seems aware of this, as well as the fact his casting of Nyong'o was both groundbreaking and might make a difference. In an interview with New York magazine, he said: "You know, there's been a lot said about dark-skinned black actresses and the limitations they have within film. Well, I just hope that directors and other creative people have the idea of putting her in great and interesting projects, because she's extraordinary."

 

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2014 A14

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Perry Bellegarde elected as national chief of Assembly of First Nations

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A Canada goose flies towards the sun near the Perimeter Highway North and Main St Monday afternoon – See Day 10 for Bryksa’s 30 goose project - May 11, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A one day old piglet glances up from his morning feeding at Cedar Lane Farm near Altona.    Standup photo Ruth Bonneville Winnipeg Free Press

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Will you watch The Interview?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google