If there was any doubt left that Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o was 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 were 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 African-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. 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 "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)ne 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’Oreal or Cover Girl, 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: "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 a special correspondent for The Root, an online source of commentary from a variety of black perspectives.