Fuse is celebrating Women's History Month by looking at a variety of rising forces who are creating Future Women's History before our eyes. Today we today we pay tribute to Lupita Nyong'o, who earned the 2014 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her movie debut as Patsey in Steve McQueen's Best Picture–winning 12 Years a Slave.
Nyong'o's filmography is so modest, her tabloid presence so sparse, that her notoriety is a pure testament to her gifts as both a performer and person. You know the 34-year-old's name, her face, her voice, and at least a couple of her five film roles thus far (two of which are solely voice-acting). You also likely know that what she says has major impact. “Though what has happened to me so far is incredible," she said at Glamour's 2014 Woman of the Year Awards, "I am still a work in progress and I hope to always be. ... To be woman is to be human. And to be human is to seek perfection and to find joy in never obtaining it."
Lupita was born in Mexico and shortly after returned to her parents' native Kenya. As an artist, she has trafficked heavily in greatness, making her professional onstage debut at 14 as Juliet in a Nairobi production of Romeo and Juliet. In Hollywood, she started out as a production assistant on films like Ralph Fiennes' Oscar-nominated The Constant Gardener and the adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer-winning novel The Namesake. She got her master's in acting at the Yale School of Drama, and, just three weeks before graduation, beat more than 2,000 actresses for 12 Years a Slave.
In addition to becoming the first Mexican actress and second African actress to win an Oscar, she was the first Kenyan to win and to ever be nominated, period. She also took home the Best Supporting Actress honor from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. She's since scored a bevy of magazine covers, including three for Vogue, where her first appearance, in July 2014, made her only the second African woman on the cover.
Aside from acting on the big screen, Nyong'o starred in the Danai Gurira–written Broadway play Eclipsed, nominated for six Tonys in 2016, including a Best Supporting Actress nom for herself. Pre-fame, she directed In My Genes, a documentary about being albino in Kenya and starred in a TV series, Shuga, in her country.
Nyong'o speaks openly on the fact that she does not look like many marquee Hollywood actresses, and that that's not a simple existence. Winning Best Breakthrough Performance Award at Essence's 2014 Black Women in Hollywood ceremony, she made a powerful speech about self-image. "I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty. Black beauty. Dark beauty," she said early on, recalling a letter she'd received from a woman who was about to purchase whitening cream for her skin before learning of the actress. "I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight," the fan wrote, adding that "you appeared on the world map and saved me."
Nyong'o spoke of praying, as a child, for light skin, and how the appearance of Sudanese model Alek Wek—and Oprah's praise of Wek—helped her "inadvertently [see] a reflection of myself that I could not deny." And yet, as she recounted in the finale to her speech:
"To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, 'You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.' And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be. And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you.
What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful, is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.
And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty."
Nyong'o continues to rep for representation. She ended her Oscar speech with, "No matter where you're from, your dreams are valid." She told the Daily Beast in 2017, "The more we’re conscious of the importance of respecting and representing the world we live in, the more we gain momentum in inclusion.”
She has also spoken up for important causes including the Women's March on Washington and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's months-long stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She is WildAid's Global Elephant Ambassador.
After winning the Oscar, Nyong'o didn't appear onscreen for another two and a half years, until last September's Uganda-set Disney film Queen of Katwe. We'll next see her face in Marvel's 2018 Black Panther movie, alongside an MVP bench of black actors including Forest Whitaker, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya, Phylicia Rashad and The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira.
While her face has been missed onscreen, her voice-acting work only upped the excellence of The Jungle Book and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. And—may the Force be with us!—she'll be back as Maz Kanata for Episode VIII: The Last Jedi this December.