Lupita N’yongo Makes Hollywood History as the Second African to Win an Oscar

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Lupita Nyong’o at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013 – photo by Gordon Correll GDCgraphics

On Sunday night at this year’s Academy Awards, Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita N’yongo made history by becoming the first Black African to win an Oscar. This also makes her the second African to win a prestigious Academy Award in an acting category. The honor of the first African to win an Oscar for acting goes to South African born actress Charlize Theron ten years ago.

Other Oscar wins for Africa have gone to winners in the non-acting category of Best Foreign Language Film. Winners here have included Algerian Cosa Gavras for Z (1969) and South African Gavin Hood for Tsosti (2005). A film directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, Black and White in Color (1976) also won an award as the official Ivory Coast nomination in this category but the Oscar was awarded to French Producer Arthur Cohn so no Africans won in this category. Lupita’s win marks  the fifth Oscar for Africa and an important historical event in the category for acting for the African continent.

Lupita’s win was not just a moment for Kenyans, it was a celebration for the whole African continent. She captured the aspirations, dreams and the hopes of the Africans that were nominated in the past. She acknowledged the struggles of people of African descent that had come before her, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” This includes people such as Patsey, whom she portrays in the movie, “12 Years a Slave” to people such as Algerian Costa Gavras who was the first African to be nominated for an Oscar in any category and Jonas Gwengwe, the first sub-saharan African to be nominated for an award.

Never failing to acknowledge her African roots, earlier in the night, whilst Lupita walked the red carpet, when asked about the Prada dress she wore, she noted that it “Reminded her of Nairobi”.  This gave rise to the light blue color she was wearing being dubbed as “Nairobi Blue” – #NairobiBlue became a popular hashtag on twitter Sunday night soon after.

N’yongo has represented the African Diaspora in America and continent well during her ascent in Hollywood. She embodies the spirit of an Africa that is telling its own narratives. N’yongo is always conscious to connect her African heritage as an integral part of who she is, often reminding interviewers that her first notable acting role was in an African MTV Base series called Shuga. In Hollywood many Africans are encouraged to downplay their ‘Africaness’ in order to make it in the industry. Many resort to changing or shortening their names so that they become more competitive. N’yongo stands out because made it without doing so – she always stays true to her Kenyan roots. She is unashamedly African in an industry where differences are not always easily accepted. Instead of changing her name – she released a video teaching people how to correctly pronounce it – thereby claiming her African identity.

Since she seldom fails to claim Africa – Africa claims her back.  As the announcement for best actress was approaching, one could feel the anticipation building from Africans on social media. Many Africans from Cape to Cairo, were commenting on Facebook and Twitter about her in anticipation for a possible win . After she won, social media was once again abuzz with Lupita fever, many of them claiming her victory as their own.

She also took a moment – through an emotionally charged acceptance speech – to speak directly to Africans aspiring for an Oscar nomination in the future by mentioning “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and each and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”

N’yongo was one of four people from the African continent to be nominated for an Oscar this year. The others included Chiwetel Ejiofor, Barkhad Adbi and Jehane Noujaim. In keeping up with Lupita’s tradition of paying homage to her fore-bearers, below is a list of Africans that have been nominated for an Academy Award in the past:

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nigeria, Best Actor in a Leading Role, 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Barkhad Adbi, Somalia, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Captain Phillips (2013)

Lupita Nyong’o, Kenya, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Jehane Noujaim, Egypt, Best Director in a Documentary, The Square (2013)

Rachid Bouchareb,  Algeria, Best Foreign Language Film, Outside Law (2010)

Rachid Bouchareb, Algeria, Best Foreign Language Film, Days of Glory (2006)

Gavin Hood, South Africa, Best Foreign Language Fils, Tsotsi (2005)

Sophie Okonedo, Nigeria, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Hotel Rwanda, (2004)

Darrel, Roodt, South Africa, Best Foreign Language Film, Yesterday (2004)

Charlize Theron, South Africa, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Monster, (2003)

Djimon Hounsou, Benin, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, In America (2003)

Remi Adefarasin, Nigeria, Best Cinematography, Elizabeth (1998)

Rachid Bouchareb, Algeria, Best Foreign Language Film, Dust of Life (1995)

Caiphus Semenya, South Africa, Best Original Music Score, The Color Purple (1985)

Jonas Gwangwa, South Africa, Best Original Music Score, Cry Freedom (1987)

Ettore Scola, Algeria, Best Foreign Language Film, The Ball/Le Bal (1983)

Costa Gavras, Algeria, Best Foreign Language Film, Z (1969)

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