First, let’s be clear. This is in no way a criticism of Lupita Nyong’o. Not in the least. In fact, I foster a deep admiration for her. Rather, this is a critique of the media surrounding Ms. Nyong’o. Since 12 Years A Slave premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, praise for her has multiplied and catapulted Nyong’o into an intense spotlight. She’s now a face of Miu Miu. Her Instagram is a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood. She’s featured on the covers of Dazed and Confused, the Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue (someone likened her to a living Oscar statue) and as of this week, New York’s Spring Fashion issue.
Lupita Nyong’o is the new It Girl–which means her moment, and maybe even her whole career, could soon come to an end.
When a black actress becomes becomes an It Girl, her star could likely fade in the next year. Meanwhile, when it comes to white actresses, the It Girl status is almost always a stepping stone to bigger and better roles.
The easiest way to illustrate this is by looking at the trajectory of recent It Girls. Currently, Jennifer Lawrence is at the top of her game. She’s so ubiquitous that people are actually begging her to take a break. She starred in Winter’s Bone, which led to X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook, an Oscar for Best Actress and now American Hustle, which has put her neck-and-neck with Nyong’o for the Best Supporting Actress award. Before Lawrence, there was Emma Stone who has made fewer red carpet appearances as of late, but enjoyed a string of hit movies like Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gangster Squad and The Amazing Spider-Man. The years before that were dominated by Carey Mulligan and Anne Hathaway. Every single one of these actresses continues to book major roles and have appeared in a number of fashion ads.
But if we follow the trajectory of black actresses who have had similar hot streaks, the results are more dismal. Let’s revisit 2006, when a 25-year-old Jennifer Hudson blew everyone away with her performance in Dreamgirls. In fact, her performance was so good that people actually forget that Beyoncé starred alongside her. Hudson appeared in another acclaimed role in 2008’s The Secret Life of Bees, but her star has definitely dimmed since then. Her latest role was in the widely panned Black Nativity, which flopped. In 2009, all conversation seemed to center around the then-26-year-old Gabourey Sidibe and her turn as the titular character in Precious. While her acting was fantastic and she’s since gone on to appear in photo spread for Harper’s Bazaar, the only thing anyone could talk about then and can talk about now is her weight. Google her name and take a look at the auto search results. Gabourey Sidibe weight. And then these days it’s all about the incomparable Kerry Washington, but she is the rare exception. Before Shonda Rhimes, a black woman, wrote the part of Scandal’s Olivia Pope for Washington, the actress was floating from obscure role to obscure role.
Lupita Nyong’o stands at the precipice of both fates. She could go on to play roles as pivotal as 12 Years’ Patsey because the crux of the Lupita Nyong’o Paradox is that she doesn’t look like most black actresses, has a completely different background and is a better fit for mainstream Hollywood than any black actress before her. Her very existence as a black actress on a red carpet is a win for Hollywood’s image. She’s near-perfect. She’s Yale-educated, extremely tall, pleasantly thin, well-spoken and has looks that the fashion world can appreciate–check out the Lupita Nyong’o doppelgänger in Zac Posen’s Fall 2014 show. In all, the media hasn’t fawned this much over the natural beauty and potential of a black actress since Halle Berry was in her heyday.
If Lupita Nyong’o succeeds then it means only a certain type of black actress can make in Hollywood. And if she fails, then it means black actresses are still being marginalized. It’s hard to decide which would be worse.
Follow Nikita Richardson on Twitter @nikitarbk