Lupita Nyong’o and the Value of Visibility

LawThis article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to read more from the current issue featuring cover woman Lupita Nyong’o!

After appearing in North America’s highest-grossing movie of all time this winter—Star Wars: The Force Awakens—Lupita Nyong’o has turned up in an unexpected place. Not as wife to Will Smith’s doctor in Concussion or a young lawyer in the thriller The Whole Truth—roles she reportedly turned down— but on Broadway, where she made her debut in February as “The Girl” in the all-female African play Eclipsed.

“I grew up in a country and in a world that consumed a lot of Western popular culture,” the Kenyan actor, who won an Oscar in 2014 for her role in 12 Years a Slave, told The New York Times. “And so I was starved for stories about people like me. This [play] seemed like a prime opportunity to do a story about Africans that also really allowed me to stretch myself, to experience totally different circumstances from the ones I grew up in.”

Eclipsed, penned by The Walking Dead actor Danai Gurira, explores women’s brutal experiences of war and sexual slavery in the waning days of the second Liberian civil war of 2003, a far cry from Nyong’o’s own comfortable upbringing as a middle-class suburbanite. Although Nyong’o was born in Mexico, due to her parents’ political exile from their native Kenya, she returned to a life of privilege in the East African country, spearheaded by two professional parents: her father a member of Parliament and her mother a successful businesswoman.

She eventually moved to the U.S. for college and earned an undergraduate degree in film and African studies from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where she completed for her thesis a documentary film, In My Genes, which explores the lives of albinos in her homeland. Nyong’o previously developed her filmmaking skills while serving as a production assistant on the set of the 2005 film The Constant Gardener, on location in her Kenyan neighborhood and which starred Ralph Fiennes and Oscar winner Rachel Weisz. She further assisted filmmaker Mira Nair on her 2006 film The Namesake and has reunited with the director to portray the mother to Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi in the upcoming Disney film The Queen of Katwe.

Few films and plays have depicted the experiences of middle-class African women like Nyong’o, experiences that include her enrollment at the prestigious Yale School of Drama. Still, just being able to tell African women’s stories from any socioeconomic standing and from African women’s perspectives is groundbreaking within Western culture. Thanks to her newly achieved star power, Nyong’o helped to bring Gurira’s Eclipsed first to the off-Broadway Public Theater in 2015 and now to Broadway at the Golden Theatre.

Nyong’o first performed in Eclipsed as an understudy while a student at Yale in 2009 and, as she revealed in her New York Times interview, eagerly spotlighted this play when asked to choose the vehicle for her stage debut. Gurira, a friend of Nyong’o, is an award-winning playwright who also plays the katana- wielding Michonne on the popular AMC series The Walking Dead. Eclipsed showcases mostly African women actors in a story written by a Zimbabwean American and directed by South African Liesl Tommy, thus illuminating the power of African-women-centered storytelling.

We recently caught a brief glimpse into women’s experiences of the second Liberian civil war when Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, an updated Lysistrata satire on Chicago gun violence, paid homage to Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee, who organized the women in her country in a sex strike that helped bring an end to the war and ushered in fellow Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s president and the first woman head of state on the African continent. Eclipsed, however, provides deeper storytelling of that war’s effect on women’s lives. What makes Gurira’s play unique is the way that it captures the complexity and diversity of African women’s voices while enhancing their visibility to the American public.

The value of visibility is certainly not lost on Nyong’o, who boldly showcased her impeccable style during the 2014 awards season when she campaigned for 12 Years a Slave. During that year, she received Essence magazine’s “Black Women in Hollywood” Breakthrough Performance Award and she acknowledged in her acceptance speech that the celebration of the dark-skinned Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek helped her to feel “more seen, more appreciated by the faraway gatekeepers of beauty.”

Those same “faraway gatekeepers” have now lavished Nyong’o with praise for her elegance on the red carpet and her effortless embodiment of dark-skinned, short-haired beauty and femininity. Such a representation is still considered revolutionary in a culture that values fairness—even among celebrity women of color, who often adjust their bodies to more resemble the norms of white womanhood. Transforming these beauty politics, Nyong’o became the first black woman to land a deal with Lancôme cosmetics, and she’s graced numerous magazine covers, twice appearing on the cover of Vogue.

Despite her efforts to bask in the glory of being “more seen,” it is telling that two movie roles she has played in the wake of her 12 Years a Slave win are computer-generated characters, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming Disney remake of The Jungle Book. Of portraying the centuries-old alien Maz Kanata in Star Wars, Nyong’o told BuzzFeed, “12 Years a Slave was a film that was so much about my body, and Star Wars is not at all. There was a liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question.”

There is a paradox here, it seems, for visibility can be both oppressive and liberating for women of African descent. Black women may feel the pressures of being representative when their bodies are visible—hence Nyong’o’s escape into the fantasy world of Star Wars as an alien—and yet also understand the importance of being “more seen,” which is why many fans of Nyong’o were disappointed to not see her actual body in Star Wars. Unfortunately, there are still too few African women leads in science-fiction stories, with the exception of the award-winning film short Pumzi, directed by fellow Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu, which debuted in 2009 alongside Nyong’o’s In My Genes.

Hollywood movies in general rarely feature black women leads, lagging behind television and theater thanks to TV showrunner and trendsetter Shonda Rhimes and the Broadway triumphs of Audra McDonald, with her multiple and historic Tony wins. Hopefully, Nyong’o can break through in different ways than Hollywood can imagine for the moment, even if that means branching out to Broadway, where she can flex her acting muscles.

However, with upcoming films like The Queen of Katwe and the development of her star-turning vehicle in the film adaptation of Americanah by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nyong’o is altering the visibility of African women both on the screen and on the stage, insisting that they will no longer be eclipsed.

 

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.