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Art

Black actresses make waves

Lupita Nyong’o. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Lupita Nyong’o. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Lupita Nyong’o could not have picked a better time to be in Hollywood.

Since her award-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, she has had the chance to be in a slew of remarkable films and made an impact in every single one of them.

From her amazing presence in the Star Trek franchise (in the Last Jedi film and TV series) to The Jungle Book and the Queen of Katwe, they have all been leading up to her co-starring in the much-anticipated Marvel comic make-over movie, Black Panther which is opening worldwide on February 16.

Lupita was clearly meant to be Nakia in the very first black super-hero film, based on the first black super-hero comic book character created by the inimitable creative Stan Lee.

But Lupita is by no means the only woman of colour who is making waves in Hollywood. Indeed, this would seem to be the hour not just of the Hollywood women who have been spearheading the |”Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements that took off once celebrity women started pointing fingers at sexual predators like the media mogul Harvey Weinstein. Lupita was not nominated for anything special this year, but a number of other black women were.

For instance, Octavia Spencer, (who last year won awards for Hidden Figures) is up for best supporting actress for her role in The Shape of Water, which just received the most Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

The R&B singer Mary J. Blige was nominated in two Oscar categories for her role as Florence Jackson in Mudbound. One was for Best Supporting Actress (which would also constitute the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that two women of colour were up for the same Oscar).

The other for composing and singing the Best Original Song. The screenwriter for Mudbound is Dee Rees, another African-American woman, and she has been nominated in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay. But even beyond the Academy Awards, black women in Hollywood are making their creative capacities known.

The most exciting film of this kind (apart from Black Panther which also features Angela Bassett and a number of new faces like Florence Kasumba, Letitia Wright and Sydelle Noel) is another upcoming film directed by the African-American filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the award-winning sci-fi fantasy A Wrinkle in Time in which Oprah Winfrey will co-star as Mrs Which.

DuVernay choice to direct this classic children’s fantasy by Madeleine L’Engle is a far-cry from her previous films. She is best known for her directing of Selma about the historic civil rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.

Oprah was also in that film and proved her full range, not just as a Talk Show icon but also as a serious actor with broad theatrical power. The first and only African American female billionaire also recently won the Cecil B. DeMille Life Time Achievement Award in January at the Golden Globes in Hollywood, additionally making her the first black woman to receive that award.

Ava also made the controversial documentary film 13th about race, injustice, the 13th amendment of the US Constitution, and the mass incarceration of men of colour in the US. So for her to scoop the directorial role of this $100 million Disney film project is rather extraordinary.

But A Wrinkle in Time also has a number of women of colour in the cast, including Storm Reid and Gugu Mbatha-Raw among others. Yet there are other films starring women of colour this season which have not done quite as well as others. But it was exciting to see Proud Mary starring Taraji P. Henson (who co-starred with Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures and also co-stars with Terence Howard in the TV series Empire) break out into new territory. It might be termed “terrible” terrain since she plays a gun-happy hit woman who develops a conscience which of course complicates her life in a big way.

Taraji is just as “good” a hit woman as Charlize Theron in Atomic Blond, if not better! But the film had a rather sappy, to-be-expected (albeit touching) ending that may not be attuned to the tenor of these”‘black women rising’ times.

All the same, Taraji is one of a constellation of outstanding black women actors. Some are African American, a few British Black and some like Lupita African. Lupita is sometimes billed as Mexican or Mexican-African. But we Kenyans know Lupita is pure African and proud of it.

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