There's a moment in the recent NY Mag cover story on Lupita Nyong'o (titled, fittingly, "From Unknown to 'It' Girl in Less Than a Year") that perfectly captures why she matters to so many. While visiting the Brooklyn Museum with the reporter, Nyong'o is approached by a stranger, a woman who seems to be Black based on the description given, who is nervous, but works up the courage to say: "Thank you so much for your work. I just had to acknowledge that you were here and really say thank you for how much hope you provide for me."
After just one movie role, as Patsy in 12 Years a Slave, Nyong'o symbolizes a lot of the hope that Black women feel that our stories and beauty will be seen and celebrated on film. And while she is not the first Black actress to win an Oscar or be declared an "It" Girl or shot for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, Nyong'o's arrival feels very different than Halle Berry's, Jennifer Hudson's and others. She feels familiar...like a real person, less Hollywood manufacturing.
The truth of the matter is that as much as many women relate to her, she is in fact like us in very few ways. Not her background or her parentage, as the daughter of a prominent family in Kenya whose father is currently a Senator. Not her education, as a graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Not her zero body fat, flawless dark chocolate skin (which she called "night-shaded") or her uncontested gorgeousness that she does not try to fit into a pre-set Hollywood mold, but proudly shows off in bold colors with her natural hair parted and puffed up into various geometric styles.
But beyond wanting to make us scream, "She's so beautiful!!!," there's something more. And it's this distinction, this way that Nyong'o is not like the rest of us, that makes her a talent and a new fixture in Hollywood worth feeling hopeful about. To play Patsy, the role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she had to consider, in ways that the average person's psyche could not handle, what it would mean to have been a slave. It is a horror that most of us choose to ignore. But to be Patsy, she had to go there, to imagine how a woman survived such terror. She acknowledged it in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, saying through tears, "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is due to so much pain in someone else's."
Beyond the photo shoots, the red carpets and the stunning beauty, what Nyong'o has brought us as Patsy is a humanity and grace in the face of what was most inhumane and base realities of enslavement, rape, beatings and abuse. Her celluloid achievement is reason to believe that Nyong'o will be around for many years to fill us not with hope, but excitement.
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(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)