Sunday, January 26, 2014

WARAH: Lupita Nyong’o may change the way Africans are portrayed in Hollywood

PHOTO | AFP Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. Nyong’o won the best supporting actress at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role in 12 Years a Slave.

PHOTO | AFP Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. Nyong’o won the best supporting actress at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role in 12 Years a Slave. 

By RASNA WARAH
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If Lupita Nyong’o wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for her role in 12 Years a Slave, she will not just make Kenya and the African continent proud, she may actually change the way African women perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others.

Lupita has managed to do what Barack Obama couldn’t do despite his Kenyan roots – she has “normalised” Kenyan-ness on the international scene. (Obama’s experiences in Kenya were not always positive, and he barely knew his father.)

Lupita’s easy charm, intellect and talent have won her millions of fans, but what sets her apart from other African movie stars is her matter-of-factness about who she is.

Lupita has not tried to change her appearance to look more “white” – her dark skin shows no signs of bleach or plastic surgery.

Her hair is natural – no weaves for this sassy Kenyan lady. Lupita oozes sensuality without being conscious of it, and without feeling a need to be a sex symbol.

Having said that, I think that her portrayal of Patsey the slave girl will earn her the most kudos. For this, the credit goes partly to her talented British-Caribbean director, Steve McQueen, whose rendering of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free slave who was sold into slavery, has left audiences worldwide deeply moved and utterly stunned.

12 Years a Slave is a difficult movie to watch. The director does not skim over the horrors of slavery or gloss over them with a light brush.

He painstakingly depicts the inhumanity of this practice and the abuse that slaves underwent so that conquerors of the New World could flourish. Several times during the film, I found myself out of breath, angry and depleted – the shock and horror of it was just too much.

One scene is particularly distressing: Northup has barely survived an attempted lynching, and is hanging for dear life with the tips of his toes that are barely touching the ground. The other plantation workers are shown working in the background, as if nothing unusual is happening.

In an interview, McQueen explained that the scene tried to exemplify how common abuse was among slaves. “They didn’t experience lynching as something exceptional, that called for intervention, but as part of the hell they lived in.” Other scenes of rape, cruel beatings and forced separations are equally disturbing.

Toni Morrison, in one of her novels, describes slave owners as “men who knew their manhood lay in their guns” and who “could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight”.

It is interesting to note that while there have been several films made on the Jewish Holocaust, the number of films made on slavery – from a slave’s perspective – are few and far between.

Yet, there were nearly twice as many Africans sold into slavery or born as slaves than those who died in the Holocaust.

The reason perhaps is that slavery is too uncomfortable an issue for Hollywood movie-makers, and for Americans in general, who like to believe that the “greatest nation on earth” was built on the sweat of white men, not that of African slaves.

McQueen has made an exceptional film with an exceptional caste. Everyone should watch it, not just because a Kenyan is starring in it, but to gain a better understanding of the cruelty that men are capable of, all in the name of profit.

* * *
Every morning I say a silent prayer to the god of electricity, requesting that there be no power cuts or fluctuations. Alas, my prayers are rarely answered. Mr Kilowatt always disappoints.

Almost daily, my computer switches off abruptly (I don’t have a back-up battery) and the words I have written disappear before my eyes.

As a writer, there is nothing more painful than to watch a carefully crafted paragraph vanish into thin air. (I know I shouldn’t complain given that 70 per cent of Kenyans do not have access to any electricity, but still…).

What’s worse, my electricity bills are getting higher every month. Perhaps it is time to re-think the excruciating monopoly of Kenya Power.

rasna.warah@gmail.com