Last week, the big news in Hollywood revolved around the recent Academy Awards, and particularly, Lupita Nyong’o’s historic Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in her role in the movie 12 Years a Slave.
In Hollywood, anytime a non-white person wins an award as prestigious as an Oscar, it’s big news. For all its activism, progressiveness, portrayal of racial harmony, and general liberal façade, Hollywood has historically not been favorable for the image and careers of black people (American or otherwise). Which is why Lupita’s win is a big deal and she made a point of addressing the racial implications of her recent success in a speech at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence Magazine. In case you haven’t heard, Lupita is black…and African at that. Kenyan.
There is inherent racial bias Hollywood. This is not news and many have pointed to the exclusion, marginalization, and negative typecasting of black actors for a long time. And the criticism is not exclusive to Hollywood’s impact on black actors. Movies made about black figures just can’t seem to make it unless they have white characters in the lead roles. This is a problem that even non-minority fixtures of the industry, like Star Wars director George Lucas, have spoken up about. Read this article on his struggles to get the all-black cast Red Tails picked up by major Hollywood producers.
So, against this backdrop, a black woman from East Africa wins an Oscar and it’s a huge story because Hollywood doesn’t typically bestow this type of honor on a black actor…let alone one from Africa.
I am very proud of what Lupita has accomplished.
But, there is another East African I am immensely proud of in Hollywood…Barkhad Abdi.
Barkhad, another East African, came out of nowhere to star in and get nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Captain Phillips.
The biographies of Barkhad and Lupita could not be more divergent. Lupita comes from a well-to-do Kenyan family, lived an interesting life around the world, and received a top-notch education at Yale University. Barkhad was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, fled his country during the turmoil of the ‘90s, and immigrated to the US as a refugee. It has been reported that despite his movie’s success, Barkhad has been financially struggling and relying on the kindness of friends to get by.
Two lives experienced on opposite tracks. Yet they are both now tasting the fruits of their thespian labor.
Will we see Lupita or Barkhad as lead roles portraying compelling characters with amazing stories like their own? Will there come a time in Hollywood when actors of their backgrounds can assume prominent roles in films that do not have any racial or cultural underpinnings? I hope so.
As an East African, I applaud both of them for their success thus far. As an American, I cheer when doors open and the American dream is realized by anyone with a dream and determination.
I grew up watching movies about real-life black heroes that were told as if their accomplishments were inextricably linked to the generosity of white people. Think Cry Freedom and the telling of Steve Biko’s life. Personally, I simply refuse to watch movies like Invictus or The Blind Side. Even though these types of movies are still getting produced and promoted, I am actually optimistic about change. I think we are inching our way to a Hollywood willing to tell the story of a Lupita or a Barkhad without having to adorn their character with a “White Savior”.