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More than a Pretty Face: Lupita Nyong’o

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Lupita Nyong'o

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Academy award winner Lupita Nyong’o has captured the hearts and minds of many movie lovers since her meteoric rise to stardom this past year. Alternately understood as a style icon and breakout start of the award winning film, “12 Years A Slave,” Lupita is more than a beautiful and talented actress. She is also a filmmaker with a political consciousness that comes from a famous family of Kenyan activists, artists, and political dissidents. And many have argued that her blossoming career reflects a promising future for Black actresses.

Currently, Lupita is perhaps most well known for her portrayal of “Patsey” in “12 Years a Slave,” a feature film adaption of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and memoir. She has won dozens of awards for her role as an enslaved woman who is both favored and fetishized by her violent master and a constant target for her sadistic mistress. With her 2014 Best Supporting Actress win, Lupita Nyong’o became only the 7th Black woman to win an Oscar in acting.  

Lupita Amondi Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1983, the second of six children. Her first name is a diminutive of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.  Her parents, Dorothy and Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, were political refugees who fled their native Kenya for Mexico. In Kenya, the Nyong’o family had been targeted and tortured because of their opposition to the government. Once in Mexico, Lupita’s father taught at El Colegio de México as a visiting lecturer in political science. The family eventually returned to Kenya, where after a bit of turbulence due to the family’s political ties she largely lived a suburban, middle class life. Lupita excelled in school and became fluent in several languages, including Luo, English, Swahili and Spanish. She moved to the states to attend Hampshire College, where she majored in film and theater studies. Thereafter, she received her MFA from the Yale school of Drama in 2012.

Lupita began gaining on screen attention during her stint in “Shuga,” a steamy miniseries from MTV Kenya that first aired in 2009. The drama revolved around the personal and professional lives of several up and coming young people in Kenya. Shuga had an explicit focus on the role of HIV/AIDS in the communities it depicted. In the series she played Ayira, a young woman juggling multiple lovers and who sometimes engaged in risky behavior, like unsafe sex.

Lupita Nyong’o is not only an actress but a filmmaker as well. Her 2009 documentary In My Genes, which she wrote, directed, and produced, chronicles the experiences of albinos in Kenya, who are often targeted for their skin condition.

Most recently, Lupita has been making waves for her striking beauty and impeccable fashion sense. She has been a staple on best dressed lists since 2013 and was chosen to be a part of Miu Miu’s spring fashion campaign. Lupita’s popularity has even incited her fans to get involved in promoting her career in fashion. #LupitaforMac is a campaign started by feminist media mavens Yaba Blay and Joan Morgan to get Lupita a line of makeup from MAC Cosmetics.

Although she is now known as a fashion and beauty icon, Lupita recently revealed that she struggled with issues of colorism and had a poor self-image until she saw dark skinned Sudanese runway model, Alek Wek. Her frank discussion of her own journey towards self-acceptance reveals an understanding of the damaging effects of colorism and the ways in which diverse representations of beauty are one way to combat hegemonic notions of women’s value and worth.

With a recent role in the film Non-Stop and speculation about a role in the upcoming “Star Wars” sequel, the sky seems to be the limit for Lupita Nyong’o!

 

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