Lupita has baffled Kenyans and the world at large. The actress and film director has made history as the first Kenyan and pure Black African to win the coveted Oscars and garner critical acclaim and numerous awards from one film. Her role in 12 Years a Slave, a film based on the true story of Solomon Northup (an American free man who was kidnapped into slavery where he spent 12 years in captive) is celebrated. Because of that, she’s now brushing shoulders and taking selfies with the biggest of American celebrities; from Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey to Leonardo Di Caprio. She’s a darling of this season’s red carpet fashion and film critics. In the film she plays poor Patsey, a strong-willed yet broken pretty little thing born a slave. Patsey is caught in between a cruel and masochist master and his jealous wife, who makes her life even the more, a living hell.
Hollywood isn’t only wowed by her extraordinary performance in the film but everything she represents inside and out. Her skin has got that very dark shade that clearly represents the black race, a very authentic look in the casting for a film on slavery. Her roots are particularly intriguing. Born in Mexico of Kenyan parents? And how to pronounce the name: Lupita Nyong’o? Sometimes they just call her Luppy. Few women are confident enough to cut their hair short and Lupita’s natural do flaunts her effortlessness and confidence. It’s a declaration that Black Girls Rock. She’s a role model. In fact, the hard-to-impress Joan Rivers, host of E!’s adored Fashion Police called red-hot Lupita in a Ralph Lauren gown “the first African super woman”, right before declaring her Best Dressed from Golden Globes. Her surreal beauty and bold fashion sense intrigues Hollywood. An unknown artist even made an animation of Cinderella Lupita.
A lot of Kenyans watched 12 Years of a Slave late January 2013—quite the pity that they didn’t get to share in the conversations about the film and Lupita with the rest of the world as soon as it premiered worldwide (last quarter of 2013). However, to catch up, many (like me) have been forced to first watch pirated copies. So to those busy critiquing the film and Lupita before watching it – just shut up.
Nevertheless, the collective response on Lupita’s performance and acclaim in Kenya is varied. I’ve come across unhappy Kenyans claiming that by not mentioning Kenya and Kenyan art in most of her interviews, she doesn’t support Kenya. Soon after Golden Globes, another troupe on Kenyan social media started an anti-international designers crusade, cross-examining why Lupita hasn’t yet worn a Kenyan designer on Hollywood red carpet. Others have come out to disregard or rubbish her performance in the film, citing it overrated. Others admit that they are adamant to celebrate her; afraid that she might be a one hit wonder while speculating that all the attention from Hollywood is because she starred in a racism-themed film. They suppose that had she acted as a normal, free and better person (not a slave) in the society, then she wouldn’t have gotten all the acclaim. Others claim that she’s been identifying herself as a Mexican more than a Kenyan and they don’t like that.
The other group (a majority) is generally very proud of Lupita. From her role in the film and everything it presented to her like the awards, nominations and meeting the crème de la crème of Hollywood. They appreciate that for once E! News and American entertainment is not obsessed with the Kardashians and celebrity babies but the Kenyan girl who leaves a fashion stamp on any red carpet she graces. Many admire her acceptance speeches, charisma, eloquence and humility.
Lupita critics; give the girl a break. It’s no mean feat trumping legends like Julia Roberts in any kind of nominations. It’s any actor or actress’s dream to be as successful in a debut film. No matter what anyone says, this is Lupita’s time to shine and she deserves it. Having featured in a largely celebrated film makes it no miracle that she reached that status. The film and its cast have been leading with nominations in various awards and categories all season. It’s your prerogative to think she’s overrated but also note: she is just a supporting actress. The film is not about Patsey but Solomon Northup played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (another actor with nominations as many as Lupita’s). Having been adapted from a memoir, the film’s directors and producers made sure the story was balanced and every character supported the main protagonist – Northup. With such constrains, I agree with some critics that Lupita’s role of Patsey in the final parts of the film is minimal. However, I still find it remarkable. Together with Chiwetel, the duo’s portrayal of how Solomon and Patsey share solitude, suffering and pain is heartbreaking. From apathy, empathy to sympathy; their joint performance evokes all sorts of emotion; I really really really sobbed when they hugged goodbye.
Lupita is getting a lot of credit for her role in 12 Years a Slave because she’s a first-time actress in Hollywood, from Kenya yet she gets the American accent correct. She’s very learned. Yale School of Drama is no joke. She acts out a silent emotional wreck. She’s a slave. Slaves don’t speak unless spoken to. She is thrown at bottles, raped and burnt with objects but doesn’t speak. Its how she begs Solomon to take her life for her; how she begs for mercy; how she cries from whips and the pain their wounds bring. It is how one woman, without talking much, acted out the part of another suffering woman, bringing the original Patsey’s spirit alive.
To Kenyans blindly critiquing Lupita negatively, recognize and respect that she’s the first Kenyan to reach Hollywood’s highest peak. Whether or not, she is being awarded for being black or acting a suffering role, she acted it pretty damn well. About rocking Kenyan designers, have they tried to contact her? I believe there are plenty of fabulous local designers like Poisa and Blackbird that she could wear to a red carpet. Shall the hook up can happen, that’s a guaranteed great exposure for Kenyan fashion. In the meantime, Lupita can wear whatever designer she fancies plus it’s part of showbiz and a formality.
Through Lupita, Kenyans now eye Hollywood differently. Because of her, Kenyan actors and actresses like Melvin Alusa, Nick Ndeda, Sharon Mina, Dennis Amunga, Mkamze and Nini Wacera, must believe, now more than any other time that they can make it to Hollywood and reach a world audience. Through Lupita, Hollywood eyes Kenya differently. “Are there other amazing actors back in Kenya?” Jimmy Kimmel (American Talk Show Host) asked Lupita in an interview. We are not just the fastest marathon runners and the home of Africa’s largest wilder beast migration but also a wealth of talented artists, who can produce bonafide film stars. Because of Lupita, another African breaks through into Hollywood.
Whether or not, she is cast for more films is nobody’s business but hers. And even if she decides to retire and return home, she has already done many proud. If she didn’t mention Kenya in some interview, so what? Most international press like any other will edit information to fit whatever their audiences want. They probably don’t care much about Kenya, but Lupita—the striking fascinating creature with a great sense of humour and fashion beneath a brilliant actress.
In reverse, the Kenyan audience craves to see Lupita home. They want to hear her talk about Kenya and how it’s where she started out. They want her to talk to them, maybe dedicate an award or two to them. Let’s not alienate her or act too clingy just because she is living her dream, Far Away. She’s forever our ambassador just by the virtue of being Kenyan. Let’s learn to be inspired by our very own while appreciating them. She was born in Mexico, belongs to the world but at the end – she’s OURS.
BONUS: Her Oscars Acceptance Speech was everything!! Everything.