(The Root) — 12 Years a Slave is being hailed as the front-runner to sweep the next Academy Awards. In addition to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s powerful performance and Steve McQueen’s forceful direction, there is Lupita Nyong’o’s haunting turn as a slave named Patsey. Nyong’o’s ability to convey Patsey’s grace and humanity, regardless of the abuse and degradation she endures, affirms her status as one of the most gifted actresses to grace the screen in recent memory.
Nyong’o’s performance has been universally praised by critics, but even if she doesn’t manage to win an Oscar (although she deserves one), she may end up securing something more valuable: a place in history as one of Hollywood’s first dark-skinned romantic leading ladies.
New York magazine called Nyong’o “gorgeous” and the site’s commenters went wild, with many of them describing her as “beautiful” and “stunning.” The Huffington Post dubbed her a “style star,” citing her “natural beauty” and “stunning” looks. Perhaps the biggest testament to Nyong’o’s official arrival as a major force in beauty and fashion is this: She was recently the subject of coverage in the beauty bible known as Vogue magazine.
Nyong’o is certainly not the first black beauty to make it big in fashion or movies. But if she truly succeeds at both, she will be the first black beauty like her who has really made it. The black actresses who have emerged as true leading ladies in Hollywood tend to fit European standards of beauty, among them Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Halle Berry and Paula Patton.
Other successful black actresses have been major forces in Hollywood — including Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg and, most recently, Academy Award nominee Viola Davis — but none have ever been considered ingenue material.
This is not to say that all of these actresses aren’t beautiful and talented. I am a fan of all of them. But I also recognize that there are little girls out there who have been taught by Hollywood that women who look like them, with gorgeous dark skin, will never be the woman the guy ends up with in any romantic comedy, whether it has a predominantly white cast or a predominantly black one. The documentary Dark Girls explored the beauty bias that women of darker skin tones continue to face within our community — and outside it — and the long-term destructive impact on self-esteem and self-love.
But I’m hoping that Nyong’o may help change that. The signs are there that she might. Not only is she being celebrated by the fashion and media elite, who are still predominantly white, but she is being embraced by black audiences, too. Commenters on the black entertainment site Bossip, usually known for their ability to gleefully point out celebrity flaws and imperfections, have hailed her as “hauntingly beautiful” and “drop-dead gorgeous.” One wrote, “what a naturally GORGEOUS woman … it’s refreshing to see a natural dark-skinned Hollywood beauty … love love to see more of Mrs. Lupita.”
That commenter is very likely to see her wish come true. I’m pretty sure we will all soon be seeing more of Nyong’o. Her eyes radiate warmth and her smile is infectious, meaning that she is much more likely to evoke comparisons to Berry in the early days of her career (think Boomerang) than the intimidatingly fabulous Grace Jones back in the day (think Conan the Barbarian).
For this reason, I predict that Nyong’o may have an easier road ahead of her on the path to ingenue superstardom than some of her darker-skinned predecessors. The fact that the fashion press is in awe of her will certainly help, making it easier for her to land the cosmetics contracts, fashion endorsement deals and other accoutrements that can elevate one from Hollywood’s C-list to the A-list.