What Does It Take to Be the Black ‘It’ Girl?

Lupita Nyong’o is this season’s “it” girl. But will Hollywood continue to celebrate her brand of looks and talent?

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As Viola Davis famously said in a Newsweek actors’ roundtable, in a comment that hit age, gender and race issues, “I’m a 46-year-old black actress who doesn’t look like Halle Berry—and Halle Berry is having a hard time [getting cast in Hollywood],” before Charlize Theron cut her off with a presumably well-meaning quip: “You have to stop saying that, because you’re hot as s--t.”

Nice of her to say, I guess, but terribly misguided—and easy for her to say—given that starring roles abound for tall, blue-eyed blondes in all manner of films.

The real test will come after the Oscars. That’s when we’ll see if all the Lupita love translates into romantic leads and star parts with substance, like the ones offered other—usually white—actresses in her cohort. Patsey is a great role, as was Davis’ star turn in and as The Help. But there is much more that these actresses can do.

With Kerry Washington making waves with Scandaland on fashion-magazine covers—and Saturday Night Live adding Sasheer Zamata to its ensemble, the 12 Years a Slave star isn’t alone. True onscreen equality, though, means a lot more than just one; it encompasses beauty and talent in all sizes, shapes and colors, and Nyong’o’s shoulders are far too slim to carry the hopes of black women in Hollywood and beyond.

As style icon Iman—another one-named beauty with roots on another continent—has said: “Since I’ve been in America, I’ve always been intrigued by one phrase: ‘She is beautiful, like the girl next door.’ I have always wondered whose neighborhood they were talking about.”

In a changing neighborhood, perhaps Nyong’o can be more than a single, beautiful flash.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post’s “She the People” blog and WCCB News Charlotte. She has worked at the New York Times and the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.

Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK, who has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, Politics Daily and as a contributor to The Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for The OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.

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