Is Kenya’s princess camera ready for mainstream America?
By HAZEL BECKLES YOUNG LAO | 4/3/2014, 2:15 p.m.
Long before Steven McQueen unveiled Lupita Nyong’o in high definition, I yearned for her. Self-affirming visual representations of all our children engaging the world would help build their confidence to stake their piece of it. It is unfortunate that we depend on mainstream media to project that world.
I do swear and quarrel with newscasters and writers for coded words and negative slants, even joining ABC’s “Good Morning America” “Twitterverse” to record my critique. Breaking for a few weeks, I return, conflicted and torn, but still searching. To soothe my irate spirit, I ask, “Do we want to see our children on commercial television or in movies playing caricatured roles, validating goods and behaviors that, for the most part, do nothing to enhance our well-being?”
Throughout the years, I have known confident Lupitas—great actors all from various generations. Their absence was not that hard to discern. Contrary to what the mainstream media profiles as beauty, they were simply too dark. Just as assertive, camera-ready light-skinned African-descended girls came closest to having universal appeal where it mattered most—in the pockets of Hollywood and Madison Avenue media moguls and their bottom line. Even if they were part of a “diverse” repertoire, it was hardly likely that scenes would fade out with their images in focus. Light skinned yet still lacking universal appeal in this Eurocentric culture to leave a lasting impression.
Then along comes this vivacious, young, dark-skinned woman with two birthrights making her grand entrance at this year’s Oscars via the movie “12 Years a Slave.” Born in Mexico of Kenyan professionals and raised in Kenya, she is Kenya’s princess—not a Disney Princess. Stepping up to the mike as she walked the red carpets leading up to the coveted stage, she created a buzz. “Lupita, Lupita.” A media handler’s dream; no need for training or controlling this woman. She had this.
Quietly I looked on, elated by Nyong’o’s poise and consciousness. It was quite apparent (and refreshingly so) that this young woman was not taken in by the glitz and the glamour. This time around, the glitz and the glamour were taken in by her. With an aesthetic African presence, Nyong’o is a Luo woman. The Luo people are in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Congo and Ethiopia. Already an acclaimed young film and music director in Kenya, hers was the voice that made it to the platform. Each time she got up to speak, the Kenyan princess gave words to the unspoken doubts of the hopeful evolving/evolved Lupitas amongst us and in us. But I am yet to sing full-throated in this celebration.
Not to deny the sister (and us) this transient joy. I am wary. With such a pedigree, excitedly different and unusual, if Hollywood has anything more to do with Nyong’o, she will soon become its flavor of the month, “ebony exotica” or something like that. She is just as multidimensional as the other Black women who have graced the silver screen before her and as young as they were when they first appeared. But soon her roles will fade to black. Ask Angela Bassett, relegated to infrequent roles in an ensemble cast without a chance of a script for a leading lady.