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04 Mar Written by  Kimberly Ward

Lupita: Hollywood’s Newest Black Fetish

Lupita Nyong’o, like Whoopi Goldberg in 'Colour Purple' in 1985, Jennifer Hudson in 2006’s 'Dreamgirls', Gabourey Sidibe in 'Precious' in 2009 and Viola Davis in the 2011 film 'The Help', is the latest in a line of previously unknown black women with a non-standard form of beauty to have come out of nowhere to capture the hearts and minds of critics and fans worldwide, sweeping the awards season with armfuls of trophies for their (debut) performance in a film about poor, oppressed black people.

And the darker the fresh, young talent’s skin or the bigger her girth, the more likely she is to garner praise for her gritty, moving, and intense portrayal of a tragic character who spends most of the film in question depressed.

The unconventional looking starlet (or in the case of Viola Davis, the previously little-known talent) is placed on a pedestal by the media that falls over itself to declare her beautiful (when previously such looks were never even present in the mainstream, much less praised) and kick-start discussions about black beauty in a white beauty dominated world. The lucky woman’s own traumatic true story is also publicised to add fascination and an uplifting ‘triumph over adversity’ angle to the media glare.

But it is curious that the powers that be in Hollywood seem to like producing and then exalting films that cast black people in an unfortunate universe where they face untold suffering, cast a distinctive-looking woman in the lead or supporting role, and then celebrate her.

Why does female African-American film success always have to rise from torment?

Halle Berry too won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in 'Monster’s Ball' (2001) as poor widow Leticia – whose husband is killed on death row and whose overweight son is run over by a car – who then copulates with the white warden who oversaw the execution of her husband in a raw, uncomfortably realistic sex scene, the kind normally reserved for pornography.

Although Halle was an established actress before this role, she was similarly thrust into the limelight and widely tipped to win an Oscar following 'Monster’s Ball'. But the movie’s makers, the Academy and even Halle herself received criticism from the African American community for the inelegance of her character and the seeming requirement that only such a debased role could get her professional recognition.

Rapper Jadakiss, in a track titled 'Why?', voiced the exasperations of his community in relation to the gongs given to black actors that year (co-incidentally Denzel Washington, the doyen of upright, inspirational movie characters, won a Best Actor Oscar for playing a corrupt police officer in 'Training Day' (2001), the first ‘negative’ role of his career): ‘Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar/Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?’

Indeed.

But another aspect of the likes of Lupita’s new-found fame, one which is often muted by the mainstream media’s rush to crown this black woman as wonderful, is the question of genuine acting chops. Although all, from Whoopi to Jennifer, Viola and Lupita, gave captivating performances, many ask if a combination of their relative newness to the acting world, their limited screen time (Lupita) or the fact that they sang rather than acted their way into people’s hearts (Jennifer) was enough to make their performance Oscar worthy, especially when pitted against more established actresses who gave weightier performances.

(Although no one can deny that Whoopi’s turn in 'Colour Purple' was substantial enough to merit her Best Actress nomination, but she didn’t win.)

Of course most Oscar-nominated pictures are usually harrowing in their characterisations and feature troubled people facing troubling circumstances – light-hearted romcoms or fun-filled comedy capers are not the stuff that Academy nominees are made of – but the Meryl Streeps and Cate Blanchetts of this world at least play respectable, mainstream characters met with problems, and Sandra Bullock won a Best Actress trophy for being a compassionate, middle-class mother (who adopts an African-American boy and leads him to success) in 'The Blind Side' in 2009.

Yet black women have to contend with playing intrinsically tragic characters whose very existence is despised by themselves and the world around them: slaves and servants.

It is telling to note that of all the black actresses nominated for Oscars in recent times, (including Hattie McDaniel, the first ever black woman to win an Oscar in 1940 for Best Supporting Actress in 'Gone With the Wind' where she played the maid) almost all played characters humiliated, harassed and/or cheapened by an oppressive male ‘villain,’ usually white (or in the case of Whoopi in 'Colour Purple', her African-American husband, and in Hudson’s case in 'Dreamgirls', her lover/father of her daughter).

Basically, to be a black woman and a shoe in for Academy consideration, you have to not be conventionally good looking (or in the case of Halle, try as hard as you can to look beat-down and unattractive – it evokes ‘realness’) and be demoralized onscreen to the point of suicide. And it helps too, if the film is based on a true story, in order to increase the pity and add more depth to not only the plight of your character but also of negroes past and present.

Then, as if by way of compensation for being so put-upon onscreen, you are rewarded with a golden statue, or at least a nomination, which raises your profile immensely and declares you the new darling of Hollywood. You will be heralded as a different kind of beauty, but a beauty nonetheless, and women who look like you will be inspired that the world can value them after all.

The establishment will declare you the ‘new it-girl,’ and if your African roots are still fresh, like with Lupita (Kenya), your African country, and in fact the whole of Africa, will glory in the light your success is shining on them.

So, congratulations to Lupita for her Oscar win. The Yale graduate is now Hollywood royalty. But let’s hope that her success is not a symptom of Hollywood’s desire to bestow annual glory on a token black woman as a show of fairness, whilst reserving the proper acclaim, better and longer term film roles and more critical consideration to white actresses.

 

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