TPM Cafe: Opinion

Let’s Stop With The African-American Actress Fade To Black

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John Shearer

Nyong’o, who isn’t African-American but a Mexican-born Kenyan actress, has become one of the most anticipated stars on any red carpet. Tumblr and Pinterest are filled with Lupita Lookbooks and fan art of her ensembles. She has graced several magazine covers and sat next to Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, during Fashion Week, but even Nyong’o herself wants to make sure people see her as an actress first and fashion figure second. In the press room after winning Best Supporting Actress Screen Actors Guild award, Nyong’o said that she doesn’t feels pressure to be a fashion icon because her first love is acting and she doesn’t want her career to be overshadowed.

It was important for her to issue this gracious yet firm reminder because as of right now, she only has one additional acting credit following 12 Years a Slave, which is the Liam Neeson action thriller Non-Stop. Nyong’o plays a flight attendant named Gwen, but in the trailers, she doesn’t speak, and early reviews suggest she doesn’t have much to do in the film overall. Rather, white actress and Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery, who also plays a flight attendant, features much more prominently in the film’s promotion. Her IMDB page lists no projects in production, and there haven’t been any announcements — official or otherwise — to indicate any pending projects.

So what will Hollywood do with Nyong’o, the breakout star of the season? There are plenty of options for her — if she’s offered roles outside of what’s typically offered black actresses. Academy Award nominee Viola Davis has been vocal about the dearth of expansive roles made available to black actresses. Davis has been nominated twice for an Academy Award, for the films Doubt and The Help, each maddeningly for the role of a domestic worker. Davis vowed never to play a maid again, but the films she has appeared in haven’t carried the same kind of profile as those in the films for which she was nominated. Recent Oscar nominees and winners like Davis, Jennifer Hudson, Gabourey Sidibe or Mo’Nique just don’t get offered the kind of wide-ranging roles former “it girls” like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson receive.

Hollywood doesn’t know how to place black actresses, especially those beyond the quintessential size six, outside of roles such as domestic worker, slave, the sassy black girlfriend, the matronly mystical figure or the long-suffering mother. Hudson even claimed, in a comment she later backtracked, that she turned down the title role in Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH because she didn’t want to be offered jobs because of her weight. Academy Award winner Halle Berry has also expressed frustration about the way her looks can harm her ability to be cast, but it’s very clear that Berry, as a fair-skinned, slim woman, still gets offered a wider range of roles than women with darker skin and larger dress sizes.

Current “it girl” Jennifer Lawrence is Lupita Nyong’o’s main competition in the upcoming Oscar race. She has barely had a moment’s rest between projects after exploding onto the scene with Winter’s Bone, and rightly so. Lawrence is a great actress, but so is Nyong’o. After Winter’s Bone, Lawrence signed on for two major franchise films, X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games, plus starred in two critically-acclaimed films, The Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. The latter has put her against Nyong’o in several Best Supporting Actress categories this award season.

Nyong’o deserves an excess amount of opportunities in the same vein as Lawrence. Nyong’o has played the proper Hollywood games so far. She attends every major function and award show. She is physically fit, a respectful and delightful interview, has chemistry with just about everyone she meets, and maintains enough discretion about her private life to keep people intrigued. She’s paid her Hollywood black tax, so to speak, by portraying an American slave who is subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Why haven’t we heard more about possible roles she’s been offered? It may very well be that her noted discretion extends throughout her camp. Maybe no news doesn’t necessarily mean bad news, but the silence about any future roles is starting to drown out applause.

So what kind of roles would work for Nyong’o? First, here are some fairly obvious suggestions: If anyone has a script for a Grace Jones biopic, this photo from Vogue Italia should make it clear that Nyong’o would be a perfect fit. Like Jones, Nyong’o has the sort of commanding presence that makes her an international phenomenon. Film studios are choking theater pipelines with reboots and stand-alone movies featuring superheroes. It may be too much to hope that Marvel would re-envision the X-Men character Storm, either in a standalone or as part of a future Black Panther storyline, but either way, Nyong’o was crafted for the role. Not only does she share a cultural heritage with the mutant superhero, but as she’s displayed in numerous interviews and acceptance speeches, she has the kind of poise one expects from royalty. And Nyong’o’s signature close haircut would allow her to portray a popular storyline for the occasional X-Men leader.

However, as Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, and now Michael B. Jordan have recently illustrated, Black actors no longer have to be limited to certain roles because of race. There are numerous opportunities for Nyong’o to be on the receiving end of “blind race casting,” either in television or film. It would be amazing to see her in a role similar to a female James Bond, Ethan Hunt, or Jason Bourne, as Angelina Jolie has been able to play. And there’s no reason that she couldn’t break out into roles traditionally played by white actresses. There’s no reason that the highly acclaimed Gravity had to star a white actress. America likes its bad guys to have accents. Nyong’o would make an enchanting villain. It would be exciting to see her play roles in which she gets to be in contemporary settings and not a victim of brutality. It would be even more remarkable to see Nyong’o cast in a romantic comedy as a lead. Of course, Nyong’o may not be interested in any of these types of roles, but to see a dark-skinned African woman cast in roles because of her talent would show significant growth in Hollywood.

Before Lupita Nyong’o arrived to take over the Hollywood red carpet, she produced and directed a short film documenting people with albinism in Kenya. Nyong’o may have to create her own roles, as many Black actors have realized, but with the kind of cachet 12 Years a Slave has given her, she should have offers overflowing. Hopefully Nyong’o is keeping any offers close to her vest and taking her time in choosing her next project because it would a shame to see this rising star dim from neglect.

Nichole Perkins is a freelance writer, based in her hometown of Nashville, Tennesse