We are firmly ensconced in the absolute flawlessness of Lupita Nyong’o. Every time the Kenyan beauty steps onto a red carpet, or posts a new photo on Instagram, or gives an interview we all fall a little more in love. Her seemingly effortless style, luminous skin, and her ability to slay everyone within a 100-foot radius with her bold fashion choices and too-cool personality has quickly catapulted Nyong’o to the top of Hollywood’s “it” girl list. But as we all bask in Lupita’s awesomeness, I can’t help but wonder why she’s the only Black woman standing in the spotlight.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m THRILLED the 30-year-old actress is enjoying her time as the toast of the film industry. I can’t wait to see what gorgeous gown she’ll rock Oscar night, and I’m waiting to hear what Lupita will say when she accepts the coveted Best Supporting Actress trophy (yes, I have already claimed it for her). But while the Yale grad is amazing and wonderful and more than deserving of all of the attention she’s receiving (and then some), so are other Black actresses.
In White Hollywood, “it girls” have always been able to coexist. Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Ann Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, Margot Robbie, Rachel McAdams, and many more continue to rack up roles while still being hailed as the next generation of starlets. Conversely, when a Black actress is celebrated, there only seems to be room for one at a time.
Due to the juggernaut of Scandal and popularity of Django Unchained, Kerry Washington seemed poised to be the new Black “it” girl until Lupita came along and dazzled the media. Years past, The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira was all the rage. Bond girl Naomie Harris seemed on her way. Gabourey Sidibe’s Oscar nod put her on the map. Rashida Jones and Maya Rudolph were making inroads. Zoe Saldana picked up steam. Halle, Vivica, Nia, and Gabrielle all took their turns. But despite the list of Black actresses who have been embraced by Hollywood, for some reason, there seems to only be room at the top for one.
And herein lies the problem. While Black actresses continue to fight for inclusion, having one elevated above the rest feels like progress until you realize that it’s really not. While I hope Lupita Nyong’o’s meteoric rise will mean other Black actresses will find themselves in films, on magazine covers, and on TV screens, history tells us that one person’s success simply does not trickle down to the group.
After Halle won the Best Actress Oscar over a decade ago and name-checked actresses like Jada Pinket-Smith and Angela Bassett, many thought that Black actresses were finally going to make some headway in Hollywood. Only it never happened. Three women garnered Best Actress nominations since Halle took home the statue– Gabourey Sidibe, Viola Davis, and Quvenzhané Wallis—but none of them won. Moreover, as Arienne Thompson pointed out in USA TODAY, “Of more than 250 box office releases so far in 2013, fewer than 50 have featured a black woman in a leading or supporting role,” and of the 10 highest grossing films last year only one, Star Trek Into Darkness, starred a Black woman.
While White actresses can go from “it” girl to in-demand starlet, the moment in the spotlight is often fleeting and less lucrative for Black women.
One way for this to change is for Black filmmakers to continue writing, directing, and producing films specifically with this latest talented crop of Black thespians in mind. This is why I’m heartened by people like Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay, Justin Simien, Tina Gordon Chism, Ryan Coogler, Andrew Dosunmu, and Mara Brock Akil who are all creating quality roles for Black actors. But there is still more work to be done.
While we celebrate as Lupita Nyong’o enjoys her season as the toast of Hollywood, I can’t help but wonder how long her reign will last.
Will she go on to continue to shine bright, or will Hollywood cast her aside for different “it” girl as soon as another Black actress turns in a show-stopping performance?