On Sunday March 2nd, an organization of mostly older white wealthy men gave out awards to people for acting in films that the vast majority of Americans did not see. One of the awards given out went to a Black/Mexican/Kenyan actress who played a slave woman in a screenplay of an original slave narrative told in the 19th century. The next day millions of Americans would still wake up, go to work, eat breakfast send their kids off to school and live their lives like the previous night didn’t happen. But if you spent your time on Twitter, you’d think the entire world changed because Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsey in “12 Years a Slave”. Many African Americans and “Black Twitter” jumped onto Lupita’s successful night creating real praise and fake controversy as everyone tried to input some greater meaning on the night than what really existed. This is why we can’t have nice things, because everything has to mean something to everyone.
The furor to define what Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar means has become quite an internet obsession for some people. If you fail to see some higher meaning in her looks, award or the entire evening you get lambasted; enjoy her success too much and you’re an idealistic fool. You know that old chart that shows how an optimist, a pessimist, a capitalist, etc. views “a glass half empty”? There should be a similar chart except that Lupita Nyong’o is now the glass. Here’s a sample of attitudes on and offline within days of the Oscars.
The Optimist: Lupita’s Oscar means that now Hollywood has finally opened up to stories about African Americans and casting women of color who don’t look like traditional western notions of beauty.
The Racial Pessimist: Hooray, another black person won an award playing a slave, even better a slave woman who is regularly the object of sexual abuse and affection by a racist white man. Hello Monster’s Ball.
The Cynic: There are tons of women out there like Lupita, and nobody cared or called her pretty until she was famous
The Culture Critic: Lupita’s beauty validates black women everywhere
The Cynical Feminist: I betcha there are TONS of black men out there calling Lupita ugly. They hate black women, they hate Scandal, they hate everything.
Who conveniently forget that it’s not only African American men that may not be blown away by Lupita’s looks….
Although in reality the internet trolls were few and far between on #BlackTwitter, as most people were caught up in the moment. But another interesting reaction to Lupita’s success was the amount of shade that got thrown towards other black women in Hollywood and the black community’s penchant for having a short memory about “beauty”.
The Shade Throwers:
As is all too often the case online, common sense seems to come in short supply. There did seem to be a few people, men and women that understood that making too big a deal of any part of Lupita Nyong’o’s success was pointless.
Most of these opinions represent extremes. The desire to turn Lupita Nyong’o’s success into some larger litmus test for blackness or the state of race in America is reflective of a deeper sadder issue in the black community. Still so starved for any semblance of respect for black women in mainstream (re: White) media culture that any event has to be turned into a seminal symbolic point in African American life. So the black community had to grin and bear it when Halle took her Oscar for Monster’s Ball. People fiercely defend or ignore the flawed sexual and racial undercurrents of Being Mary Jane and Scandal, because we all, with very good intentions, so want to see Black women get their day in the popular culture sun to shine as bright as the next white actress. Unfortunately this Oscar will not do any of that.
Whether or not you find Lupita physically attractive is not a sign of your brainwashing by Western media or black authenticity. She’s one woman, and it’s one’s preference. Nor will this award bring about a sea of change for the fortunes of African American women in Hollywood. I’m in the “Lupita is stunning” camp, I set up a tent and campfire there a year ago. However the ugly truth is that Hollywood seldom has room for more than one “It Girl” of ANY color at a time. It’s Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston, not both. It’s Eva Longoria or Sophia Vergara, not both. And there will be no big push to find the “next” or “another” Lupita until this one has been mass marketed to death. Lupita Nyongo is a real thespian; she can’t be relegated to lame romantic comedies, or playing “the girlfriend” of some man in a high tech thriller. It may be awhile before someone with her talent even finds another film where the full range of her abilities can be on display. Lastly, “12 Years a Slave” was not the most profitable movie up for a Best Film Oscar, millions of Americans didn’t see it, so the likelihood that Lupita’s newfound celebrity will radically change beauty standards in America is unlikely as well.
Whether you think Lupita is beautiful or homely. Whether she becomes the next Meryl Streep or falls off faster than Lauryn Hill, let’s lay off of the politics and social commentary for just a few days. As a collective community let’s allow this young woman of immense talent to find her own way and celebrate that a young black woman has an opportunity to do that. If we’re lucky we have years to find larger meaning in the career of Lupita Nyong’o. Let’s just hold back on the symbolism until that career actually happens.