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 Mark Sullivan/Getty Images for DuJour Magazine

In most of Spike Lee’s films, the object of beauty or obsession tends not to be darker-skinned. Think Cynda Williams in Mo’ Better Blues, Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing and Rosario Dawson in The 25th Hour. Even in Jungle Fever, although the plot focuses on an interracial relationship (a topic that was groundbreaking at the time), the black beauties who co-star are fair-skinned, including Lonette McKee, Veronica Webb and Halle Berry. To his credit, Lee tackled the skin-tone issue within the black community head-on in his film School Daze, which is rumored to have a sequel in the works.

In Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, Denzel Washington’s leading lady is played by Eva Mendes, a Latina who also plays opposite Will Smith in Hitch. And Fuqua cast biracial actress Shannon Kane as the ingenue in Brooklyn’s Finest.

All of these actresses are talented, but their looks conform to a very narrow definition of beauty. Blay, who is also the author of (1) Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, points out that American directors who have shied away from casting darker actresses may not be reflecting their own bias. Instead, they may be reflecting what they perceive as a built-in beauty bias among the studios they need to finance their films, or the audiences they need to convince to see them.

“Should Nyong’o achieve true superstardom,” Blay says, “there could be widespread benefits for darker-skinned women. If Lupita gets signed by a L’Oréal or CoverGirl, I can finally look forward to some foundation that matches my skin color.”

McQueen, who discovered Nyong’o, seems aware of this, as well as the fact that his casting of Nyong’o was both groundbreaking and might make a difference. In an interview with New York magazine, he said this:

You know, there’s been a lot said about dark-skinned black actresses and the limitations they have within film. Well, I just hope that directors and other creative people have the idea of putting her in great and interesting projects, because she’s extraordinary.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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