Now that Oscar has shone its everlasting light on Our Beloved Lupita and Stans everywhere spent the past week basking in her reflected glory, inquiring tongues have begun to wag: So now what for the wondrous Sister Nyong’o? What spectacular screen parts must an awakened Hollywood be lining up for her?
Before we even get to all the throwback racial issues clouding the loverly Lupita’s film future, let’s talk brass tacks. First off, we should remind non-film geek folk that Oscar is one fickle and capricious dude, with a bit of mischief hidden up his gold-plated sleeves. He’s really something of a trickster. His love for breaking up Hollywood couples is legendary—especially when The Woman is the one comes swaggering home with the Big O tucked in her clutch.
There are actors of serious renown whom Oscar likes to play hot and cold with—Meryl Streep, for example, has been nominated 18 times and won thrice. There are others whose best work O has dissed, only to show mad love for parts they could’ve phoned in, à la Denzel in Training Day. Oscar has often proven to be something of an albatross for women who earn, as Lupita just did, the fateful Best Supporting Actress trophy.
For comparison’s sake, let’s journey back a decade or two and exhume the post-Oscar highs and lows of 2003 and 1993’s Best Supporting femmes. The winning woman in the supporting category at the 2003 ceremony was Renée Zellweger. We’ll give a pass to any of you born after 1990 who just scrunched your face up and yelped, “Who the hell is dat?!”
For those who do know, we’ll remind that in ’03, Zellweger won the BSO for Cold Mountain. This was an ideal year for Zellweger to be nominated, for several reasons. Not least because her fiercest competition was an Iranian woman named Shohreh Aghdashloo. Since this was also the year the Bush Administration decided to start bombing the hell out of Iraq, let’s assume Shohreh, who hailed from an alleged Axis of Evil, really had a snowball’s chance in hell of taking Oscar home.
The other nominees were also immensely more talented than Zellweger—three hardcore vets in Patricia Clarkson, Marcia Gay Harden (who’d won in 2000 for Pollock), and Holly Hunter (who’d won in 1993 for The Piano). Over the past 77 years, the Best Supporting statuette has gone to 75 different women. Anyone’s odds for winning it twice in a single career have always been astronomically low. This was also in Zellweger’s favor. (Only the ghost of Shelley Winters can claim to have won the darn thing two times.)
At the time, Zellwegger was 34; Clarkson, 44; Harden, ditto; and Hunter, 45. The average age of women who win the BSO is roughly 27-33—even though 11-year-old Anna Paquin, riding on Hunter’s coattails, won in ’93 and 64-year-old Judi Dench won in ’98. Here’s the thing: Oscar’s Best Supporting for the ladies is, generally speaking, the industry equivalent of a pat on the head for being White, female, surviving your first 10 years in the biz, and not losing what the boys’ locker room out in L.A. would dub one’s onscreen duckability.
The point of all this is to note that Mme Zellweger’s After-Oscar arc reveals her best known work since has been voicing cartoons in the animated features Shark Tale, Bee Movie, and Monsters vs. Aliens. None shall ever rag on your pop culture IQ if you confess to having never sat through Appaloosa, Leatherheads, Cinderella Man, New in Town, or the forgotten sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary.
In speculating upon Lupita’s best options going forward, we won’t compare her to pre-teen Paquin of ’93—because it wasn’t until 20 years later that the adult Paquin finally struck gold again as Sookie on HBO’s True Blood. The winner of 1994 was 46-year-old Dianne Wiest—also not a good match. Let’s instead leap to 1995 winner Mira Sorvino.
In the dozen or so years immediately following her pay-dirt win for Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite, Sorvino took a string of minor supporting parts in mostly B-movies.
Get the picture? Even for White girls who’ve earned Oscar’s sometimey favor, the career track afterwards ain’t been no IMDb crystal stair.
But later for them. Talking about Lupita, man, and we can dig it.
So imagine you’re Lupita’s agent for a sec. Here it is, after the most glorious night in the realm of international filmdom, and your hit-streaking client has just been handed a stellar hot potato—the ultimate “strobe-light honey”—a.k.a. that damnable Best Supporting Oscar object. The thing tends to look fabulous in a certain drunk and high atmosphere, but in the cold light of day, its marketing cache is less than its cracked up to be.
You (as agent) have wisely waited for this winning outcome before suggesting yea or nay to various offers that have come across your desk. Now, however, you’re faced with several intriguing dilemmas. Because unlike the recent four previous Black Oscarellas, your client has not (A) been immortalized as the ideal sex object by the world’s lustiest rappers for two decades running à la Halle Berry (though her horrifying scenes did find her similarly coerced into on-screen sex with racist sociopaths).
And (B), though Lupita spent most of her on-screen time in this year’s Best Picture giving us depressed, suicidal and brutalized à la nominees Viola Davis and Gabourey Sidibe in their roles, she’s also not so easily typecast. For one thing, she’s done something unprecedented on the off-screen campaigning road to Oscar: namely turned the awards season red carpet into an audition tape for all the glowing, gorgeous aspects of her charismatic persona not hardly on view in 12 Years a Slave.
So the Lupitia Nyong’o her panting public now loves is the sexy, modern, sophisticated fashionista who’s repeatedly won over two of American femininity’s harshest critics: (1) the Condé Nasty types who judge the tiniest flaw in a star’s red carpet outfit and hair choices as if the question was Woman or Beast and they were the deciders, and (2) every Black woman with a personal screen. Now, generally speaking, the Condé Nasty types don’t even see Black women unless their man is The President or if said sister’s own personal assets lurk near or far above the $100 mil range à la Oprah, Beyoncé and Rihanna. Having a top 10 TV show like Kerry Washington may also occasion a begrudging glance in your direction.
Ms. Lupita’s daily powers of retweet among Black women are just as remarkable given that she’s only been in one major film, isn’t the lead in a weekly TV show, and doesn’t have a long millennial string of hit records and videos to her credit. She has, however, been described by both tough-crowd target groups as “flawless” more than any African woman since Cleopatra. Very much like Octavia Spencer, your client has gone the extra mile in portraying The Help (and then some), and now seeks to diversify her post-bellum professional portfolio.
If you’re the agent of this Goddess Incarnate, there’s one big problem with the rainbow love fest. Your client is neither a trending social media blogger nor a supermodel. She instead works in a business where being fashion-forward doesn’t really mean jack. One where the audience you have to sell on your client is mostly middle-aged White men—the same geezers who produce and direct the bulk of American movies for an extremely narrow (yet hugely profitable and monolithic) demographic: young White males between 18-35 years of age. The guys who only put down cashola at the multiplex to see macho-fantasy versions of themselves writ large on the silver screen.
The action flicks made for this majorly skewed sampling of the American mosaic often require A Girl. Usually though, all she gets to do is smile, cower, get rescued and maybe accept the kind of smooch cowboy hero Roy Rogers used to plant on his faithful horse, Trigger. Every 10 years or so, a woman does get to helm an action franchise. Director James Cameron is generally responsible for this intervention. Unfortunately for your client, he already has his Black Girl for this decade in Avatar’s Zoë Saldana, whose own powerhouse agent has locked her into a whole other multiplex franchise with potentially years ahead, Star Trek.
There are a few Black male superhero features coming up from Disney/Marvel. There may be a couple of minor girlfriend parts attached, but likely nothing worthy of your client’s gifts or fervent fan base. Fortunately, the big screen is no longer the only option to advance a rising star’s career. HBO, Netflix, AMC and Showtime are daily fielding proposals from writer/producers who sometimes think outside of the colored casting box. To date however, few of their productions for this Second Golden Age of TV have come forth with any quality roles for Black women.
Who knows though? Maybe those alpha show runners Shonda Rhimes (Scandal) and Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane) are entertaining fresh looks for the emergent and versatile Nyong’o as we speak. Michelle and hubby Robert, the creators of The Good Wife—who concocted Kalinda Sharma, that killer feminist part for Black Brit Archie Panjabi as corporate espionage specialist—might also be worth a meeting.
Of course, let’s also not forget Lupita speaks fluent Spanish and once lived in Mexico. Folk who think Lupita’s screen tomorrows are on lock to the Hollywood star system display a lack of global imagination. Her next gold standard statuette could show up for work south of border. Or Barcelona, even. Pedro Almodóvar, anyone?
Greg Tate is a writer and musician who lives in Harlem. His books include Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Everything But the Burden and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience.