Sunday, 2 March 2014

Loving Lupita

Loving Lupita, thoughts on 'African American' cinema and my Oscar picks!

I’m loving Lupita Nyong’o, the actress from 12 Years A Slave who, in a few short months has become the darling of Hollywood. What I love about her is pretty obvious. Not only is she hugely talented but she is reshaping our idea of beauty in a town where it sometimes feels as though cookie-cutter conformity dominates.

Women of a darker complexion have to search a little bit harder to find role models in the media and so it is a breath of fresh air that this young actress has burst onto the scene so graciously and with humility and humour.

I also really appreciate her candour regarding her relationship with her own appearance because, like her, as a girl I longed to have lighter skin. The messages I was getting from the world around me at that age was that the white and lighter-skinned black girls were the ones that people considered beautiful and that the darker you were, the uglier. It took a very long time to overturn that view and in truth it’s something that still occasionally rears its head.

Once, at a school fate, me and a couple of friends decided to get our faces painted. I watched this woman painstakingly apply tiger make up to my white friend’s face and I had a feeling her cosmetics wouldn’t show up on my face. Needless to say, when it was my turn, she didn’t know what to do with me. Her make up wasn’t geared for black skin. I think she sent me off with whiskers and a mumbled apology. These implicit messages stay with you.

Unkind names related to my skin colour, surprisingly came more from other black girls whilst at school. I see now it was probably an attempt to make themselves feel better about themselves and distance themselves from their own blackness but again, at the time, the cutting words were simply cruel and added to the growing belief that if, somehow, I could de-Africanise myself, life would be easier, boys would like me and Michael J Fox would whisk me off my feet, preferably on his hoverboard – don’t judge me. He was hot back then.

Skin lightening creams had just come into my consciousness then and by the time I hit 16 there were rumours going around as to who, at school, was using them. It made perfect sense that, if you could, you would lighten your pigmentation as part of a beautifying regime.

It was soon revealed that these creams contained high levels of dangerous chemicals such as mercury which caused irreparable skin damage but to some it didn’t make a difference and they went ahead and used them nevertheless.

But it wasn’t just skin tone, hair also drew a dividing line between those considered beautiful and those not. When I was young, I used to put a tea towel on my head and pretend I had long, “swingy” hair. I’d watch my white and light-skinned friends, jealous of the simplest things, like having a fringe, being about to get their hair in a ponytail or even being about to run fingers through their hair. My hair was so thick I could stick a pencil in it upright and I would have to shake my head vigorously for it to fall out. 

In its natural state, Afro-Caribbean hair can be difficult to deal with and at that time, required lengthy and expensive processes to make it ‘manageable’. The desire was always to have straightened hair and at the time, my thick, course hair did not want to relinquish its curls.

The more African way to deal with hair is to plait or braid it but this brought with it a flurry of inventive new nicknames so when I was finally allowed to straighten my hair with chemicals, I was relieved beyond belief. Again, it would be several years before I began to appreciate the hair I’d been given and rather than seeing it as something to be tamed, it became something to experiment with and love!

What I used to see as difficult to manage I now see as strong. In fact I now see that your hair is only difficult if you’re trying to make it do something it doesn’t want to do!

So to see Lupita, with her rich dark skin and her natural hair looking flawless and being loved for who she is, is so deeply heartening to me, especially as I’m in the process of crossing back across the rubicon between stand up and acting (or at least straddling it).

More power to her.

Whilst on 12 Years A Slave and all the deserved accolades it has received and is in line to receive, I’d like to draw attention to another outstanding supporting actress that isn’t getting anywhere near as much heat and attention as Miss Nyong’o. Adepero Oduye turned in as powerful a performance in the movie playing Eliza but for some reason Lupita seems to have captured the industry’s imagination more. Anyway, despite all this, I’m sure being in this feature will have done her career no harm whatsoever so power to her too.

During this prestige window (as I’ve heard it called) there’s been a lot of talk about how this is a great year for African America actors – they then, much to my chagrin, go on to name people such as Chewitel Ejiofor and Idris Elba. Rather like Ross from Friends lamenting “We were on a BREAK!”, many times, I’ve found myself screaming at the TV, “They’re BRITISH!!!!!!!”

People have also been saying it’s been a great year for African American cinema with offerings such as the previously mention 12 Years A Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.

It always makes me uncomfortable when people say this because even though the sentiment is one of acknowledgement, I think it’s misguided to see stories such as slavery as exclusive to the African American narrative. Slavery is not just part of African American history, it is American history - in fact - humanities history but I suspect that distinguishing in this way is a way of white Americans, understandably, emotionally distancing themselves from the brutal and inhumane practice. 

I’ve seen three of the four films I mentioned and I didn’t feel like I was watching a “Black” story. To label any story in such a way diminishes it. Gravity is not a woman’s struggle with space travel. It’s about a human being choosing life. In the same way that Mandela is a story about a man fighting injustice. To label it an African narrative is to be reductive about its power as an allegorical tale for all of humanity.

In the same way I do not think of myself as a black comedian but as a comedian who is black. It may seem like semantics, but, to me, it makes a world of difference. It’s not that I don’t still discuss being black but I see it as more about sharing what being a human being looks like from this corner of the world. But I’m still just talking about what unites us as was the case in my last Edinburgh show where I talked about relationships, not black relationships or white ones, but just relationships. And I was delighted, every day, to look out into the audience and see people from all ages, races and both genders enjoy the show - because I was discussing universal themes relatable to everyone but simply flavoured by my specific heritage.

Anyway, it’s a small point and at the end of the day, it’s a blessing that these stories are being told at all and more importantly being well-received.

Lastly, It seems that Lee Daniels’ The Butler by and large has been over-looked by the awards committees this year. I was lucky enough to see it at a Screen Actors Guild screening which was followed by a Q and A with the lead, Forest Whittaker.

I was blown away by the breadth and depth of his performance and also by that of his supporting cast which included Oprah Winfrey, Terence Howard whom I love, Lenny Kravitz and David Oyelowo who will soon take on the mighty task of playing Martin Luther King Jr in the Ava DuVernay directed feature Selma.

The Butler tracks the life of Cicil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) a White House butler who served under five presidents. This is one of the smartest films I’ve seen in a while as, through the story of one family, it told a far-reaching story of America and its bumpy relationship with its black community and the black community’s relationship with it. It’s sad to see such a great film and such mesmerizing performances overlooked, in particular Whitaker and Oyelowo doing some of his best work but there are a few films that probably deserved more recognition this year and aren’t getting it such as All Is Lost, Fruitvale station, Saving Mr Banks and Captain Philips but there’s such a broad range of films and performances that in a way, trying to pick a ‘best’ one is an irrelevance and totally contrary to acknowledging and honouring the creativity.

Having said that, here’s my picks ahead of the Oscar’s tonight

86th Academy Awards nominees
March 2, 2014 — Host: Ellen DeGeneres

Best Picture
12 Years A Slave (W)
·         American Hustle
·         Captain Phillips
·         Dallas Buyers Club
·         Gravity
·         Her
·         Nebraska
·         Philomena
·         12 Years a Slave
·         The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Matthew McConaughey (W)
·         Christian Bale (American Hustle)
·         Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
·         Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
·         Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
·         Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett (W)
·         Amy Adams (American Hustle)
·         Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
·         Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
·         Judi Dench (Philomena)
·         Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Jared Leto (W)
·         Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
·         Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
·         Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
·         Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
·         Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Lupita Nyong’o (W)
·         Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
·         Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
·         Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
·         Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
·         June Squibb (Nebraska)

Best Cinematography
Nebraska (W)
·         The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sourd)
·         Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)
·         Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel)
·         Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael)
·         Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins)
Best Costume Design
The Great Gatsby (W)
·         American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson)
·         The Grandmaster (William Chang Suk Ping)
·         The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin)
·         The Invisible Woman (Michael O'Connor)
·         12 Years a Slave (Patricia Norris)
Best Directing
Torn between Gravity and 12 Years A Slave….
·         American Hustle (David O. Russell)
·         Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
·         Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
·         12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
·         The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Best Film Editing
Captain Philips (W)
·         American Hustle (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten)
·         Captain Phillips (Christopher Rouse)
·         Dallas Buyers Club (John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa)
·         Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger)
·         12 Years a Slave (Joe Walker)
Best Foreign Language Film
The Hunt (W)
·         The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
·         The Great Beauty (Italy)
·         The Hunt (Denmark)
·         The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
·         Omar (Palestine)

Best Visual Effects
Gravity (W)
·         Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould)
·         The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds)
·         Iron Man 3 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick)
·         The Lone Ranger (Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier)
·         Star Trek Into Darkness (Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Captain Philips (W)
·         Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
·         Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
·         Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
·         12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
·         The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)
Best Original Screenplay
Nebraska (W)
·         American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
·         Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
·         Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
·         Her (Spike Jonze)
·         Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

I'd love to hear your Oscar picks so let me know in the comments box below. 

Other posts which may be of interest: Hair Today Part 1 and Part 2 - the lessons I learned about my hair, To Be The Actor's Actor - on actors training and Philip Seymour Hoffman and What's Happened To The Movies? - My lament about last years blockbusters


  1. To name some categories i hope 12 years a slave gets the best picture
    Matthew McConaughey or Chiwetel Ejiofor Best leading actor
    Sandra Bullock Best leading Actress
    Jared Leto Best Supporting Actor
    Lupita Nyong´o Best Support Actress.

    Lupita Nyong´o is the Star of the year in my opinion, outstanding actress and breathtaking natural beauty. Cant wait to see more of her!

    First time here on your blog and love it, you are as good a writer as a comedian Andi, ill be following you(=

    Cheers Ben

    1. thanks Ben. Glad you're enjoying the blog! :)

  2. Alas I missed the Oscars this year (boooo) but I think 12 Years a Slave was always going to do well. I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen it yet (or the butler) but its on my "to watch list" for sure. As for you points on labeling - African American actor, Black comedian etc I think its just an unconscious way of pigeon holing things into neat little categories (or just Hollywood's attempt to steal our talent lol).p


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