I will admit: one of the major draws for me to go and see Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the fact that Lupita Nyong’o would be in the film. In trying to avoid spoilers, I didn’t realize that she would not be appearing as her physical self but as a little red-skinned alien with thick goggles named “Maz Kanata.” I let out an audible “aw nawl” when I heard Nyong’o’s voice but didn’t see her gorgeous face and skin. I immediately thought to myself, “Of course. There are only two prominent Black characters in the movie and the Black woman ends up invisibilized and made into an alien. This is Princess and the Frog all over again.” But, in a recent interview with Buzzfeed News, Nyong’o said that she wanted a role where her body would not be front-and-center, a perplexing assertion which left me conflicted about my initial reaction.
We were all introduced to Nyong’o when she played “Patsey” in the 2013 highly awarded film 12 Years a Slave. She had just graduated from Yale’s drama school and was beginning her career in Hollywood. Her role, as an enslaved African American woman, earned Nyong’o her first Oscar award. But, that role was very focused on her body, specifically, the darkness of her skin and her physical beauty. Her role in Star Wars couldn’t be any more different. According to Buzzfeed News, “Selecting such a role, the first one she chose after 12 Years a Slave, was strategic.”
Since 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has become a fashion icon and a Hollywood sweetheart. The attention on her body has been consistent and unceasing.
The article goes on to say,
“So much of the awards season conversation about Nyong’o focused not on her acting, but on her physicality — dark-skinned, hair that isn’t chemically altered, and a slim modelesque frame. Her look sparked conversations about the need for diverse representations of beauty in the mainstream, where blonde hair and blue eyes had long been the standard. And her face graced magazine cover after magazine cover, a visual jolt to overwhelmingly white newsstands nationwide.”
In many ways, both White Hollywood and Black onlookers saw Nyong’o’s success as a personal triumph. Her indignant difference and beauty in an industry dominated by pale-skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair seemed like a signal that we were finally overcoming generations of narrow beauty standards and exclusionary politics in entertainment. But, we never really asked Nyong’o if she wanted to be our beautifully Black, Kenyan-Mexican savior.
It seems she is okay with it as long as we also give the same attention to her acting bonafides.
“Even though Nyong’o hadn’t planned on being front and center in a very important discussion about beauty, she’s happy to be in this position — so long as her talent is as admired as much as her face and body are. It’s the chief reason why she is forcing those who were so enamored or so connected with her physical appearance throughout the 2014 awards season to focus on the words she’s saying in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, rather than what she looks like.”
This was the part that made me feel guilty. I realized that in requiring that Nyong’o be everything for every dark-skinned girl who ever dreamed, I, too, was contributing to the fetishizing and objectification of her body. While I was enamored with her because of her stellar acting abilities and her attractiveness, I was not checking myself to understand how my moral commitments to the latter might have been overshadowing my appreciation for the former. In essence, Nyongo’s presence in Hollywood in such a visible way in 12 Years a Slave prompted the very people who should be giving her room to make space for herself to force boundaries upon her for selfish reasons. I’m guilty of it.
In the end, I am proud of Nyong’o that she decided to do something different in the new Star Wars film. I’m all about Black women living on their own terms, authentically, and fully. I just have to remember that Black women in the limelight aren’t saviors. It isn’t their jobs to be. And, while they may be magical and from the future, they aren’t magical super Negroes sent here to fix all of society’s woes.
They get to be human, and complete. We need to let them live.
Photo credit: Flickr