Why an African-American Director Wouldn’t Have Cast Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave

If Afro-Brit Steve McQueen hadn’t made the Oscar-nominated film, a lighter-skinned actress might have been cast in the role of Patsey.

12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and actress Lupita Nyong’o
12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and actress Lupita Nyong’o Mark Sullivan/Getty Images for DuJour Magazine

If there was any doubt left that Lupita Nyong’o is the Cinderella of this award season, it was erased by Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue. Not only did she land a slot on the issue’s coveted cover (she was one of six black actors included this year), but an article about Hollywood’s most powerful stylists dubbed her the actress most A-list designers are fighting to dress for the Oscars.

The way she’s been embraced as a style-and-beauty icon and an A-list Hollywood ingenue is a milestone—one that she herself remarked on at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, recounting her own gradual embrace of her beauty as a young girl, and telling black girls of today to embrace their own beauty.

But here’s a larger question: Would Nyong’o be on Hollywood’s radar at all if not for her discovery by Steve McQueen, an Afro-British director of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent? To be more blunt: Would an American director have felt comfortable casting a woman of Nyong’o’s hue as the leading lady of a major Hollywood film? A quick look back at film history and a discussion with an expert on skin color in American culture indicates that this is unlikely. 

For starters, there has never been a black actress of Nyong’o’s ebony skin tone to ascend to Hollywood A-list status. And among those black actresses who have succeeded in Hollywood with deeper skin tones, like Grace Jones, they have not been positioned as leading ladies or, more specifically, objects of affection. Those roles have been concentrated among fairer actresses and those with more traditionally Eurocentric features, including Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, Shari Belafonte, Rae Dawn Chong, Cynda Williams, Halle Berry, Rosario Dawson, Thandie Newton, Zoe Saldana, Rashida Jones and Paula Patton—a number of whom also identify as biracial or multiracial. On the small screen, at least, Gabrielle Union and Kerry Washington have enjoyed recent breakthroughs, but while neither woman is fair-skinned, they might not always be described as dark, either.

The challenges that dark-skinned women face in a culture that celebrates fair skin was highlighted in the documentary Dark Girls. But the specific struggle that darker-skinned actresses face in Hollywood was highlighted at a panel on diversity in Hollywood that I moderated last year for New York Women in Film and Television. During the Q&A session, a darker-skinned actress raised the issue of skin-tone diversity, a moment that left the panel, made up of casting directors and producers of different races, virtually silent. The only really successful dark-skinned actress anyone could think of in that moment was Precious star Gabourey Sidibe, who, like Jones before her, is not being positioned as a leading lady.

Yaba Blay, co-director of Africana studies at Drexel University, says she was surprised that the object of sexual and emotional obsession by the brutal slave owner (portrayed by Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years a Slave happened to be depicted by a darker actress. “I think in the American context, the way we talk about enslavement and rape, the image many of us get is, it was always a lighter-skinned woman or a woman considered ‘exotic,’ and we connect that to quadroon balls or creole identity,” she says. “We get this image that who these European men were fascinated by were women who were somewhere in the middle [in terms of race and skin tone], exotic-looking women.”

But what is truly groundbreaking about 12 Years a Slave, according to Blay, is that clearly, the man who owns her is obsessed with her in a way that does not simply denote power; he finds her beautiful. Blay, who is of Ghanaian ancestry, adds, “Without generalizing, perhaps African men do have a grounding, in seeing that the potential for beauty still exists in African women.”

Had an American been at the helm of 12 Years a Slave, it seems unlikely that Nyong’o or someone who looks like her would have been cast.

The lack of skin-color diversity in American movies is noticeable, no matter the race of American directors—after all, they’re still American. As Jada F. Smith wrote for The Root, “good” male characters in Tyler Perry films tend to be lighter, while bad ones tend to be darker. She also pointed out that while those characters who are wounded, or doing the wounding, in Lee Daniels’ Precious tend to be darker, the saviors—portrayed by Mariah Carey, Paula Patton and Lenny Kravitz—are lighter.

Perry and Daniels are not alone.