Lupita Nyong’o’s Film Journey: From Kenya to Hollywood
We trace her steps in the film world to win an Oscars at 31 years of age.
Before strutting about on world’s most enviable red carpets and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood heavyweights such as Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o was just an ordinary girl with acting genes swirling in her. Seeing her owning her character in films and wowing audiences through her meticulous speeches, one would think that she grew up in Los Angeles, just meters away from the iconic Hollywood Hills.
The 35-year-old was born in Mexico to a Kenyan politician and professor, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o and Dorothy Ogada Buyu. Her father was teaching in Mexico after running into exile during a time of unrest and oppression of political activists in Kenya. They later came back to Kenya when she was only a year old. But how did this girl born in a far-away country and brought up in this forgotten part of the world, scale the heights of acting and bag herself an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Oscars)?
At a young age, she was involved in acting plays at Rusinga International School where she pursued her early education. At 14 years of age, she made her debut into professional acting by playing the character Juliet in a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ play produced by Phoenix players.
The acting bug had bit her.
During this period, she also performed in plays, On the ‘Razzle’ and ‘There goes the bride’. After finishing her high school education in Kenya, she flew to the United States where she graduated with a degree in film and theater studies. In 2005, she worked as a production assistant for ‘The Constant Gardener’. In the subsequent years until 2007, she worked on a production crew for ‘The Namesake and ‘Where God left His Shoes’. Definitely, hers was not an overnight-success, from working behind the scenes to being the star in front of the camera.
The sultry Nyong’o starred in a short film titled ‘East River’ in 2008. It was shot in Brooklyn. In the same year, she appeared in the hit television series, ‘Shuga’,an MTV Base Africa and UNICEF production depicting irresponsible sexual relationships among the youth and educates on HIV/AIDS prevention.
To highlight the suffering that albinos go through, Lupitaproduced, wrote and directed a documentary In ‘My Genes’ which showcased to the world the discriminatory treatment of Kenyan albinos. This work earned her the first prize at the 2008 Five College Film Festival. She put her talent and skills into exposing social ills in the society and driving conversations. This is a perfect example of the tremendous power of film in today’s world.
At this time, she exploited her production skills by directing a music video by Kenyan musician, Wahu featuring Bobi Wine, ‘The Little Things You Do’. It bagged a nomination for the Best Video Award at the MTV Africa Music Awards 2009.
Choosing to enroll for a Master’s Degree programme at the celebrated Yale School of Drama, was by far the best decision she made. AtYale, she appeared in stage productions such as William Shakespeare’s‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’. These stage plays earned her the Herschel Williams Prize in 2011-12 academic years. She was noted for her outstanding ability in acting.
A few weeks to her graduation from Yale, she was cast for ‘12 Years ASlave’, a historical drama directed by Steve McQueen based on the life of Solomon Northup, an African-American man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. She played the role of Patsey, a slave who works with Northup at a cotton plantation. This role would be a life-changer for the little girl who was hesitant at first to pursue acting.
In 2014, she was awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, her being the sixth black actress to win the coveted Oscars award. She suddenly became a household name, appearing in magazine covers and red carpets.
Since then, it has been an upward trajectory. She had a supporting role in ‘Non-Stop’, an action thriller in 2014. A year later, she co-starred in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’. She also appeared in ‘Eclipsed’, a play centered during the chaos of the Second Liberian Civil War. It didn’t come as a surprise that ‘Eclipsed’ became The Public Theater’s fastest-selling new production in history.
She has starred in films such as ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Queen of Katwe’. Her latest appearance in the internationally acclaimed superhero film, BlackPanther earned her accolades from critics. The film earned over $1.34 billion as the ninth highest grossing film of all time.
This year, she will write a book titled ‘Sulwe’ on a young girl’s experience as a dark complexion. She will also star in ‘Woman King’, a drama based on the Dahomey Amazons.
She continues to inspire actors and film creators having achieved all that a young girl from Africa would dream of in the world of acting and film. Though she comes from a middle-class family, being a daughter to a politician and being exposed to experiences that an average child with the same dreams may only wish for, she embodies her saying when receiving the Oscars award “No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid” and proves that film as a creative art can also be a fulfilling career.
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