The night we go to press with this issue is when Lupita Nyong’o jets in from Kampala to Johannesburg for the premiere of her new film, Disney’s Queen of Katwe, releasing in South Africa mid-October.
Getting a phone interview – even two exclusive email quotes – from this African A-lister, despite relentlessly pursuing her PR machinery for months, has proven painfully difficult.
But this is Lupita, the African who brought home the best supporting actress Oscar for her turn as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in 2014. Her Cinderella-esque pose with the Oscar statue in the billowing blue – a color she famously said reminded her of Nairobi – Prada dress is still fresh in social media memory.
This spring, she was seen in Eclipsed, which made its Broadway debut and was written by another famous African daughter, Danai Gurira, the playwright more popular as the actress in The Walking Dead.
Eclipsed, a story about hope and activism starring a cast of all-African women, saw Lupita scoop the best Broadway debut performance award at the 2016 Theatre World Awards. The play explores the journey of four women drawn together due to the turmoil in their home country, Liberia.
Referring to her portrayal in Eclipsed, The New York Times said: “The superb Lupita Nyong’o is one of the most radiant young actors to be seen on Broadway in recent seasons.”
The Mexican-born Lupita, who was raised in Kenya, plays a part closer to home in Queen of Katwe, as Harriet, the strong-willed mother of Ugandan child chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi.
The coming-of-age film, which is a true story, set in Katwe and Kibuli in Uganda, is directed by Mira Nair, who has straddled world cinema with such memorable films as Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Nair has had a home in Kampala for the past 27 years and is the founder of Maisha Film Lab, a film school for East Africans.
In a press statement, Nair says the role of Harriet was written for Lupita, who she has known for years.
“I thought of Harriet as a young Mother Courage, and that is the strength and beauty that is in Lupita,” says Nair.
Lupita was an intern at Nair’s production company Mirabai Films in New York before she shot to fame with 12 Years a Slave. The actress had reportedly broken down and cried after reading just 10 pages of the script of Queen of Katwe.
“It was the first time in a while that I’d been so enlivened, inspired and challenged by a role I was considering,” says Nyong’o.
In its review of the film, The New York Times, said: “The sight of well-fed, well-dressed schoolboys beaten by a girl — a poor girl, at that — would be satisfying even if Queen of Katwe were a less vivid and engaging movie.”
In the interim leading up to the film, Lupita had also essayed roles in Non-Stop with Liam Neeson, The Jungle Book and played the voice of 1,000-year-old space pirate Maz Kanata in Star Wars: A Force Awakens, which released winter 2015.
And there have been other ‘appearances’. Lupita recently posted a video on her Instagram account showing off her freestyle-rapping skills, much to the mirth of her 3.1 million followers.
Lupita is also the Global Elephant Ambassador for WildAid, a wildlife conservation group focusing on protecting animals from being poached.
While Kenya banned the ivory trade over 20 years ago, WildAid says close to 33,000 elephants are killed annually in Africa for ivory. Lupita joined WildAid, for the campaign ‘Poaching Steals from Us All’, in July 2015, to advocate the protection and survival of elephants. It’s a role she takes seriously.
WildAid CEO Peter Knights says it has been amazing working with the star.
“Lupita is such a powerful presence on-screen, and this power has translated so beautifully to this campaign. She is truly passionate and committed to saving Africa’s elephants,” says Knights to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
Lupita had recently also gone back to her roots in Kenya for the October cover of Vogue. Needless to say, the 33-year-old Yale School of Drama graduate is leaving a trail as the beacon of hope for other young women in her country.
Moses Wafula, the principal of St. Mary’s School Nairobi, where Lupita was a student, calls her the school’s “heroine”.
“St. Mary’s School is very proud of Lupita. It’s a joy even to us who have ridden in the fame she has brought to the institution. Her success is a brand to our school and thence, many students have joined this institution since her Oscars’ triumph,” he says.
Attests Vivian Onano, an activist and youth ambassador for UN Women, who hails from Kisumu county in Kenya where Lupita is also from: “Lupita is a great role model and an inspiration for many young African women, me included. Despite her success, she has maintained her authenticity and stayed grounded. She has boldly showed us that you don’t have to conform to Hollywood’s definition of beauty to be successful in the global space. She acknowledges her roots and has used her platform to create opportunities for other young ladies who aspire to be like her.”
Kenyan photographer Lyndsey McIntyre, who knew Lupita before she became famous, was invited by the actress to a film she had produced on albinism, a subject McIntyre says Lupita is passionate about.
“The documentary was incredible… She always had that star quality about her even years ago but was humble, intelligent and very charming. I have no doubt Lupita is still humble and charming, she is just one of those types of people I think will manage to keep her feet on the ground,” she says.
“Like most people who acquire that level of recognition, she is exceptional, a one in a million. She has many gifts — her beauty, her intellect, her tremendous talent and her lovely personality but she was also privileged in her upbringing and studied her craft in the US when she was signed by obviously an excellent agent. She was not plucked out of a village in rural Kenya or even out of Nairobi,” says McIntyre.
In Kenya, Lupita’s parents have a reputation of their own. Her father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, is a professor of political science and senator of Kisumu county. Onano, who knows Lupita’s mother Dorothy (see interview on previous page), calls her: “A quiet lady though a great force and a doer; a very beautiful woman full of grace and a big heart.”
It’s the same grace and creative zest Lupita brings. Her hairstylist Vernon François, who created the brown and blue head wrap for her interview on American talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live in September, tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA working with Lupita is a fantastic creative process.
“We have a very productive relationship because we are both always full of ideas and collaborate well. Selecting the material for every head wrap that I design for her, is always a team effort between Lupita, her stylist and myself,” he says.
Fans can now look forward to Lupita playing Nakia in Marvel’s Black Panther, which will cast her with The Walking Dead’s Gurira; the film’s expected to be released in 2018.
She is also in the upcoming much-awaited film adaptation of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah.
Africa is watching.
‘She Will Continue To Break Through Ceilings For People of Color’
Lupita’s mother, Dorothy Nyong’o, is an advocate for women and girls and whose work with the Africa Cancer Foundation speaks for itself. Known in Kenya for her commitment to cancer patients and cancer research, she also owns a public relations firm, 7th Sense Communications:
Do you travel often with Lupita?
I occasionally travel to meet Lupita at work. She takes her work very seriously. She has a very high work ethic and does whatever is necessary to give it her very best. At the same time, she likes to enjoy her work. She is playful and builds in enjoyment of the process and of the moment. She has always done so.
How do think Kenyans have responded to Lupita’s success?
Kenyans generally own Lupita’s success. They have personal pride in her achievements and feel she belongs to them. They are inspired by her and have a lot of goodwill towards her. She is a good role model for many. People often ask me, ‘how is our daughter?’
What do you think the future entails for her in Africa?
Lupita is already a role model in Africa and worldwide. She is an influencer and a leader in her craft. She will continue to break through real and imaginary ceilings for people of color and for women all over the world. She will continue to create opportunities for Africans and people of color, worldwide.