“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.” This formidable line was delivered by Oprah Winfrey during her rousing speech at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. The women of Hollywood wore black to the event in a display of solidarity, declaring that “time’s up” on harassment, abuse, and discrimination.
While she didn’t attend the ceremony, Lupita Nyong’o has been far from absent in the fight against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. “All the brave women who have come forward have made it possible for people to speak up about predatory behavior in the future without fear,” the 34-year-old actor says. “We must continue to speak until it stops.”
Nyong’o, who shot to fame for her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave (becoming the first Kenyan and Mexican actor to do so), went public with her experiences with producer Harvey Weinstein in an op-ed letter in The New York Times, in October last year. “Harvey led me into a bedroom – his bedroom – and announced that he wanted to give me a massage. I thought he was joking at first. He was not. For the first time since I met him, I felt unsafe. I panicked a little and thought quickly to offer to give him one instead: It would allow me to be in control physically, to know exactly where his hands were at all times … I didn’t quite know how to process the massage incident. I reasoned that it had been inappropriate and uncalled-for, but not overtly sexual. I was entering into a business where the intimate is often professional and so the lines are blurred.”
It takes courage to speak up for fear of not being believed or even being shunned by the industry, but there’s no doubting Nyong’o’s determination to not be silenced. In fact, the star uses her celebrity and social status (like many of those at the Golden Globes) to her advantage – to speak up for those who can’t. “If you have a platform to make a difference then you should use it,” she says. “I am blessed that I have been given that platform to speak out.”
Born in 1983 in Mexico City to Kenyan parents and raised in Nairobi, she had an artistic upbringing, with her family often putting on performances and watching plays. At 14, she played the female lead in Romeo and Juliet in a production by Phoenix Players, the country’s oldest theater company. Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey inspired her to become an actor and she credits her “supportive parents” for encouraging her to pursue her dreams. “My parents are my role models,” she gushes about her mother, who manages Africa Cancer Foundation in Nairobi, and her father, who is a senator, political activist, and former university lecturer. “They are amazing people who raised us [she is the second of six children] to have the courage to pursue our hearts’ desires. They didn’t pressure us about what to do, but they said, ‘Whatever you do, do it with all of your heart and do it with excellence.’ It would have been so easy for them to say, ‘You want to be an actor – why don’t you get a proper job?’ But they didn’t. They have always been totally supportive of me.”
It’s clear that Nyong’o is confident and very much in control of her life and career. While only 1.65m tall, her mother often jokes that her walk is so proud you would think she is much taller. The star has stood up to prominent producers and refuses to conform – you won’t see her choosing a role because it guarantees blockbuster success. She opts for challenging characters with a stirring story to tell. “If I read a script, then go home and can’t stop thinking about the character, I know it’s a role for me,” she says. “I like it when the role terrifies me – if it does, then it’s probably going to be a role I buy into.”
Nyong’o is currently filming the much anticipated big-screen adaptation of Americanah, the award-winning 2013 novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she plays the headstrong protagonist Ifemelu. The actor is also causing a stir as Nakia in the just-released Marvel superhero movie Black Panther. The character – part of an all-female special forces team – is a departure from Nyong’o’s previous roles. “The fact that Nakia can kick butt excited me,” says Nyong’o, who underwent training in mixed martial arts for the tough action scenes. “And I can tell . you, kicking butt was a lot of fun. It was a real physical challenge as well to prepare for the role and that really appealed to me. I usually start my day by working out anyway.”
The fitness enthusiast has also recently taken up pole dancing to keep in shape, “but the training for Black Panther was pretty intense. My character is a very skilled fighter so I was training in martial arts for up to four hours a day, six weeks before filming even began.” The movie takes place in the fictional and isolated African country of Wakanda, which appealed to Nyong’o on a personal level. “Wakanda is an African kingdom that has never been colonized – and as an African woman who lives outside of Africa, this was a very special experience for me and almost therapeutic in many ways. Outside of my work, I am passionate about Africa,” says the actor, who works with WildAid on
conservation and anti-poaching efforts, as well as promoting women’s health issues and the arts. “I feel very strongly about using my platform to expand and diversify the African voice,” she adds.
Nyong’o’s biggest goal, however, is the battle for diversity, particularly in the film industry. Following her groundbreaking success with 12 Years a Slave, talent agent Tracy Christian told The Hollywood Reporter that Nyong’o’s career would prove to be short-lived – because she was black.
“Would Beyoncé be who she is if she didn’t look like she does?” Christian said in 2014. “Being lighter skinned, more people can look at [Beyoncé] and see themselves in her. In Lupita’s case, I think she has two-and-half, three years. If she can find a franchise – like Star Wars – a big crossover film, or if she’s cast by a significant filmmaker, then she’s golden, she’ll have carved out a unique path for herself.” The star paid Christian no heed: “I have to deafen my ears to [her]. She is looking at me as part of the cultural tapestry. There is still a lack of diversity in the industry. I am always reminded of the James Baldwin quote: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”
She embodied that motto in her New York Times letter: “I hope we can form a community where a woman can speak up about abuse and not suffer another abuse by not being believed and instead being ridiculed … I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence.” For Nyong’o, much like Winfrey, time’s up on prejudice – she’s kick-starting a change.
Originally published in the February 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.