By Fred Mbogo
Published January 26, 2014
Lupita Nyong’o has made history by becoming the first Kenyan ever to be nominated for an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars) award. Her nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance as Patsey in the film, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, should bring pride to a country whose talented people sometimes are denied a chance to achieve their potential. Already having won the Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role award from the 20th Screen Actors Guild Awards ahead of the Oscars, pundits are predicting another win for her.
Lupita Nyong’o’s appearance at events has since earned her great admiration. Her photographs are gracing various high profile magazines. Increasingly, top designers are lining up to dress her for these high profile events.
Through her hair, Lupita Nyong’o seems to be making a statement about her identity. She wears no wig, no weaves, and generally nothing ‘foreign’ or ‘plastic.’ With minimal make-up, nothing visibly fancy interferes with what she presents to the world. Her smile appears warm, as if to remind us of the beauty of Africa and her people. Her image is neither arrogantly imposing nor does it portray a woman who is shy about her being. It is a projection of the dignity of black, if not African, beauty.
Lupita Nyong’o’s achievements must ignite the interest of the Kenya Film Commission (KFC), for example. The achievement should not be left to merely being inspirational to other young or up-and-coming Kenyan actors; rather, it should also excite those responsible for the creation of environments that nurture creativity toward positive action. There should be active campaigns, for instance, to make Kenya a desirable filmmaking hub and not just a filming location or set for foreigners it has been over the years. It should be possible too for Kenyan filmmakers to benefit from the networking that an excited KFC could provide. Fora for the rethinking of how funding, flow of talent, and marketing issues can be approached can be held. This could go well in the direction of creating more Lupita Nyong’os of our time. But can a government agency be trusted to craft a path that leads to more aesthetics from Kenya succeeding all over the world and on their own soil? Could private initiatives be the drivers of this growth without regard to the slow moving steps of government agencies?
Lupita Nyong’o’s success cannot be taken for granted. It has come from hard work. And training. She has been both behind and in front of the camera. She has acted. She has written. She has directed. She has produced. And she has interned with film initiatives.
IN MY GENES , the documentary film on the treatment of Kenyans with albinism that Nyong’o wrote, directed, and produced in 2009, was a success in as far as the mechanics of production go. It tells the stories of a people forgotten by societal beliefs. The documentary was activist-like, at least in as far as it questioned long-held notions about albinism.
But Lupita Nyong’o is more than an activist; she is also committed to the aesthetics of drama as was shown in SHUGA TV series aired on MTV Base as part of a public campaign to spread the message about responsible sexual behaviour among the youth in which starred. It was broadcast across 40 African countries and 70 international TV stations.
SHUGA created a buzz about how people engage in sex and what place money has in the whole complicated idea of love. There were risque scenes in SHUGA that broke into new spaces.
Lupita Nyong’o’s involvement in SHUGA can be seen as part of her journey towards 12 YEARS A SLAVE which similarly seems to have demanded some acting prowess that veers from the usual.
Part of that journey, too, was her involvement in THE CONSTANT GARDENER whose characters deal with deep anxieties like the guilt of betrayal, or fear of dealing with suicidal thoughts. As a Production Assistant in this 2005 production shot in Kenya, 30-year-old Nyong’o spent some of her time working closely with Ralph Fiennes who starred in THE CONSTANT GARDENER.
It is true then that Lupita Nyong’o’s involvement in Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE which is up for nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actor for British Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Nyong’o, is neither a miracle nor a fluke for the USA-trained and based Kenyan who graduated from Hampshire College with a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Theatre Studies and a Master’s degree from Yale’s School of Drama. Lupita Nyong’o is thus a professional and not an amateur in screen and stage arts. Nyong’o’s upbringing in Nairobi, too, was among the well-heeled classes. At 16, her parents sent her back to Mexico City to learn Spanish. Apparently she was born there as her parents sought refuge there from political persecution at home.
With that background, why can it be difficult for us to imagine that Nyong’o cannot be among the ones that make it in Hollywood? In fact, Lupita Nyong’o admits that she grew up in the limelight, being the child of someone famous—her father, Prof Peter Anyang Nyong’o is a Senator who has also served as a Cabinet Minister—and that fame is not something new to her.
Had Nyong’o been born and brought up in a rural place such as Kisii, Kitale or Taita Taveta and then gone on to land the role in 12 YEARS A SLAVE that is produced with all the fanfare that follows the typical Hollywood film, then her current position would have been described as a miracle. The question that springs from this is: how can we give such a rural girl as equal a chance as Lupita Nyongo’s?
Institutions in Africa need to rethink their roles and functions. There has to be a way that film talent can be nurtured here in Africa without necessarily having to turn to Hollywood. There has to be a way through which little Hollywoods can be crafted within Africa, if only so that the talented can achieve their potential right here on the mother continent. To get into Hollywood, the West had to have a hand in the career of Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor. What moral right do Kenya, Nigeria and Africa have in taking credit for the screen ‘success’ of Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor?!
Fred Mbogo, PhD, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.