Lupita Nyong’o. The name of the Kenyan-born actress is on everybody’s lips after she won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress last night. Nyong’o plays the physically and verbally abused slave Patsey in Twelve Years A Slave, and her acceptance speech reflected the grace, intelligence, and humility that she has demonstrated throughout the awards season. Her performance as Patsey is gripping and formidable, one that leaves you still reeling as you leave the theater.
When Jennifer Lawrence won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Drama over Nyong’o in January, race entered the discussion on whether Nyong’o was unfairly overlooked. It is difficult to prove that race is the reason for Nyong’o’s loss at the Golden Globes, yet Lawrence’s win over Nyong’o may be viewed as part of a greater trend. An infographic titled “The Diversity Gap in the Academy Awards” illustrates the overwhelming absence of both nominees and winners of color at the Academy Awards, a reflection of the lack of diversity that is characteristic of the awards circuit overall. While artistic skill and quality of craft – in acting, directing, and writing – are certainly factors when considering who gets nominated and who doesn’t, other elements such as race inevitably creep in. It’s an issue that goes beyond who wins awards to who is getting cast.
One might believe that Nyong’o’s future as a star is now solidified, but as recent history has shown us, that’s not the case. Suraj Sharma, the first-time Indian actor who starred in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi last year has not appeared in any films since Pi. His Wikipedia page lists the Disney picture Million Dollar Arm as his next film, and the film’s posterfeatures Jon Hamm in front of a golden backdrop of Taj Mahal with Sharma’s name at the bottom. Other breakout stars such as Gabourey Sidibe, America Ferrera, and Dev Patel continue to appear on the big and small screen, but not with the same level of exposure as before. Sidibe is currently starring as a human voodoo doll on American Horror Story, Ferrera has most recently done voicework for How To Train Your Dragon, and Patel is in a supporting role on The Newsroom. All three actors have one thing in common: most people have no idea where they are now.
Can the same trend be observed for other breakout stars that aren’t from minority or marginalized backgrounds? The answer appears to be no. Jennifer Lawrence, who came onto the Hollywood scene with her Oscar-nominated role in Winter’s Bone, has gone on to star in not one but two franchises: the reboot X-Men film trilogy and wildly popular Hunger Games series. Shailene Woodley, another white actress who gained awards buzz for her turn in The Descendants, has since gone on to star in the teenage romance drama The Spectacular Now. She will also be appearing in the starring roles of Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars later this year (the two films are both highly anticipated adaptions of best-selling young adult novels).
This is not a critique of Lawrence and Woodley’s acting abilities. Clearly, both young women are talented. But compared to other actors of color, Lawrence and Woodley have been given more opportunities for employment along with a larger range of their dramatic roles. African American actress Alfre Woodward puts it best:
You know when we’ll know that things have changed? You know that brilliant, stunningly beautiful, and poised Lupita Nyong’o? Twelve Years A Slave is an incredible launch of a career. And this is her first thing. We will see if, [as opposed to] another brilliant young woman we saw, Jennifer Lawrence, we’ll see the trajectory of her path and what she’s offered after that. Then we’ll know whether things have changed or if Lupita is consigned to playing second banana, ensemble person for the next ten years.
Underrepresentation of minorities in the world of film and the awards circuit is not a question. The question is how we – the audience, the industry, and the press – are going to solve the problem. The next step forward is for screenplays that feature stories about nuanced characters of color and marginalized communities to get picked up, and for those films to be green-lit. Stories about African American flappers, the murder of Vincent Chin, and a love story that takes place on the Mexico-US border must be told, and already existing films that tell these stories must be brought to the forefront. Simultaneously, when a screenplay calls for a middle-aged businessman carrying a briefcase, actors other than the likes of Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney must be casted.
Last night’s Academy Awards seemed to signify that things are beginning to change. Director Alfonso Cuarón became the first Latino director to win the Oscar for Best Director, and Robert Lopez became the first Filipino-American to win an Academy Award and EGOT. Today’s headlines proclaimed “Diversity Wins Big At the Academy Awards“, a statement that may be a bit too hasty in its eagerness. Until true progress in representation is made and artists of color are given the same opportunities as their white counterparts, the narrative worlds of the silver screen will stay mired in an imaginary white America. I’ll be keeping Woodward’s words in mind and watching to see where Nyong’o’s career takes her over the next few years.