How Lupita N’yongo can “Stay Winning”
Lupita N’yongo has been nominated for an Oscar for her role as Patsey in “12 Years A Slave”. She is up against a strong panel of actresses including Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Roberts. It would be ground-breaking for Ms. N’yongo to win the coveted award, but history has shown it takes much more than an Oscar nod for actresses of color to acquire desirable roles.
In 2002 Halle Berry, elegant and captivating in embroidered Elie Saab famously rose to the top of the cinema’s A List, as the first black American actress to win an Oscar as leading lady in a dramatic role. Her groundbreaking win for “Monster’s Ball”, directed by Marc Forster and produced by Lee Daniels, signaled the winds of change were blowing even in Hollywood. Her passionate and tearful acceptance speech, noted that a “door had been opened… ” for actresses of color. Though the door indeed had been opened, that opening apparently was not wide enough for the roles to sweep in or shall we say not wide enough to bridge Hollywood casting fears.
Ms. Berry did go on to star in the James Bond installment, “Die Another Day” opposite Pierce Brosnan. In 2004 she starred in “Catwoman”, which was slammed by critics but ultimately went on to break even on its estimated $100MM budget with International screens and DVD sales. She reprised her role as Storm in the “X-men” in 2006. Yet, thereafter her next big budget leading role or roles would come opposite Tom Hanks in the Wachowski brothers’ “Cloud Atlas” in 2012. “Cloud Atlas” said to have a budget of over $100MM though well received by some critics had poor ticket sales. Ms. Berry is due back in her role as Storm in the upcoming “X-men” installment, as a star packed action film, it has a chance to return the huge box office numbers that will advance Ms. Berry’s status in the eyes of film producers.
All actors bemoan the lack of meaningful roles, but for actors and actresses of color it is more dire. In the past clutching the golden statue meant broader opportunities, better roles and more choice. That was not the reality for Ms. Berry. Traditionally, actresses of color have struggled more than their male counterparts to find success in Hollywood films. Black male actors have been able to ascend whether in buddy comedies or as the tough guy lead. It is well noted that the black male tough guy lead apparently can not, according to Hollywood producers, have a black love interest which poses another issue of concern for Lupita. Further as a dark skinned black woman and not racially ambiguous in appearance like Ms. Berry or Ms. Patton, there are greater un-spoken issues. Looking at the track record of actresses cast in major films in America, I can not imagine an America director choosing Ms. N’yongo for the Patsey role. Had Spike Lee directed “12 Years A Slave” you could bet your lunch money a fair hued black actress would have been chosen.
Currently Jennifer Lawrence is Hollywood’s Belle of the Ball. Ms. Lawrence won an oscar for her 2012 role in “Silver Linings Playbook”. She then starred in three films in 2013 and she currently has five major films in post production. Her “Hunger Games” salary has been said to be at the $10MM mark for now yet sure to rise for coming films. The bottom line being Ms. Lawrence’s films have been largely successful. Though those salary figures do not compare to leading man salaries, it far out strips the earnings of any actress of color at the moment.
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