We’re more than slaves, maids and drug addicts

Lupita Nyong’o
Lupita Nyong’o

At The Movies Tinashe Kusema
Lupita Nyong’o’s sudden rise to fame seems to have divided the world and most importantly public opinion following the 31-year-old Kenyan actress’s Oscar success for her role in “12 Years A slave”.
The West or, most importantly Hollywood, has already gone into overdrive with her alleged six-month relationship with K’Naan, of the 2010 Fifa World Cup theme song “Waving Flag”, prospective future roles and new fashion icon status.

Solely based on her works in “12 Years A Slave” and the Oscar win’s implications, Lupita surely is one to watch out for, especially considering that numbers “don’t really lie”.

With just only a Oscar win and a supposedly bright future, her net worth currently stands at an estimated $500 000, but this is despite the fact that she has only three film credits to her name, two if you drop her other film “East River”, which was made years before she was famous and is actually a short film/documentary.

But is Lupita Nyong’o really all that jazz? Well, I don’t really think so.
Given, she already has a seat on an exclusive bus of screen icons, but that’s only because she happens to be black, no, African-American to be politically correct. If she had been white, won an Oscar and starred in one of the biggest films of the summer, that win would have simply been one of those run-of-the-mill type of wins: here today, gone tomorrow.

However, we cannot deny the Yale-educated actor’s African heritage, and that surely puts her name in the history books.

Lupita’s win makes her only the 15th African-American Oscar winner, a list that spans 75 years.

Since Hattie McDaniel and Sydney Poitier’s wins, the first black female and male winners, a total of 50 nominations have been made by African-American actors and actresses in lead and supporting roles. From those 50 nominations, only 15 have managed to win that elusive gong, making it a 30 percent success rate, something that makes Lupita’s win even more remarkable and aligning her name in the history books alongside thespians like Poitier, McDaniel, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Hudson, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker and Whoopi Goldberg.

However, a closer look at her current buzz or success exposes not her potential and success but instead the fact that Lupita’s recent Oscar gong is but a drop in the ocean of the bigger problem.

Does Hollywood really regard black actors and actresses in their rightful place in the art? Garikai Mazara, during a recent radio and television commentary titled “Lupita, Mandela West’s African stars”, captured the political connotations of Lupita’s well-deserved but wrongly placed win in its place.

Although she appears to have the right grooming and background to be at the very least a relevant player in the industry, Nyong’o hardly has enough street credit to warrant a seat on the bus she appears to be on.

At best she was the beneficiary of a powerful story, credible writing, solid material and credible performance, as the film was actually tailor-made for Oscar success. This is just an opinion, but what isn’t is the fact that her success is special only because she happens to be black.

A closer look at members of that list will show a depressing trend where African-Americans are handed Oscars for what at best can be described as discriminatory roles.

Poitier and McDaniel, the two were awarded for playing a very convincing maid and handymen respectively in “Gone with the Wind” and “Lilies Of The Field”.

In 1963 Poitier “broke barriers” when he became the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman who stops at a farm in the Arizona desert to obtain some water for his car.

There he sees several women working on a fence, very ineptly. The women, who speak very little English, introduce themselves as German, Austrian and Hungarian nuns. The mother superior, the leader of the nuns, persuades him to do a small roofing repair.

He was also the first black actor to get nominated for a leading role in 1958’s “The Defiant Ones”, where he played Noah Cullen, an escaped prisoner who goes on the run shackled to another white prisoner Joe Jackson (Tony Curtis).

At the time, little was said about this one defining line where the prisoners are alleged to be shackled together because the warden had a sense of humour.

Other famous black characters who won Oscars were a corrupt cop (Washington), despotic rule (Whitaker), maid (Viola Davis) and an abusive drug addict mother (Mo’Nique) in “Training Day” (2001), “Last King Of Scotland” (2006), “Help” (2011) and “Precious” (2009).

The trend seems to dictate that African-Americans are given awards for playing stereotype roles of typical black people either in the United States of American or globally. This is despite the fact that these actors are very competent professionals with very impressive resumes like an actor such as Washington won an Oscar for “Training Day” but has done a better job in films like “The Hurricane” and “Malcolm X”.

Actors like Will Smith (Ali), Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Lawrence Fishburne (What’s Love Got To do With It), Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) merely get nominated but did splendid jobs in ambiguous roles of black men.

For that, they walked away empty-handed. Is this to say that the black community cannot do a good job when portraying regular human beings and is only good at peddling stereotypes of black men?

The three main actors to win Oscars — McDaniel, Poitier and James Baskett — are best known for breaking barriers as the first female, male and honorary winners in the black community but playing a maid, handyman and a racist that hardly any actor would be proud of.

Basket’s honorary Oscar for “his able and heart-warming characterisation of Uncle Remus in “Song Of The South ” is arguably one of the greatest travesties for the black community as that character known for its ignorance and racist comments.

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