all submissions via email only
Would Nyong’o be on Hollywood’s radar at all if not for her discovery by Steve McQueen, an Afro-British director of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent? To be more blunt: Would an American director have felt comfortable casting a woman of Nyong’o’s hue as the leading lady of a major Hollywood film? A quick look back at film history and a discussion with an expert on skin color in American culture indicates that this is unlikely.
For starters, there has never been a black actress of Nyong’o’s ebony skin tone to ascend to Hollywood A-list status. And among those black actresses who have succeeded in Hollywood with deeper skin tones, like Grace Jones, they have not been positioned as leading ladies or, more specifically, objects of affection. Those roles have been concentrated among fairer actresses and those with more traditionally Eurocentric features, including Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, Shari Belafonte, Rae Dawn Chong, Cynda Williams, Halle Berry, Rosario Dawson, Thandie Newton, Zoe Saldana, Rashida Jones and Paula Patton—a number of whom also identify as biracial or multiracial. On the small screen, at least, Gabrielle Union and Kerry Washington have enjoyed recent breakthroughs, but while neither woman is fair-skinned, they might not always be described as dark, either.
Had an American been at the helm of 12 Years a Slave, it seems unlikely that Nyong’o or someone who looks like her would have been cast.
Writer Keli Goff at The Root states, “If Afro-Brit Steve McQueen hadn’t made the Oscar-nominated film, a lighter-skinned actress might have been cast in the role of Patsey.”
Read more from her op-ed titeld “Why an African-American Director Wouldn’t Have Cast Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave”.