When Lupita Nyong’o made history by being the first Kenyan (and Mexican) actress to win an Oscar in 2013 for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave, she quickly cemented her place in Hollywood glory. Roles came flooding in, but they weren’t the ones we thought she’d get for a being a newly acclaimed actress. To date, she has starred in the thriller Non-stop and played CGI characters in both Jungle Book and Star Wars: A Force Awakens. And while those are great roles, audiences, myself included, began to wonder “why is she not being seen?”
As women, and especially black women, across industries we have found ourselves in similar situations when it comes to our careers. I mean, we’re not all Oscar winning actresses but who else here can relate to going above and beyond in our respective careers and still feeling like we’re getting the short end of the stick? The gender and race equality gap is real. But that being said, there’s a lesson to be taken from Lupita and in the way that she has defined her own version of success. Here are three ways we can learn take charge of our careers, inspired by Lupita.
Know exactly what you want
For Lupita, she knows precisely the kinds of characters she wants to play. According to her essay in “Lenny Letter”, Lupita Nyong’o goes after roles that are she describes as “fully realized and complex.” She is not interested in performing in big budget films solely for the money or taking a role because it will make her more of a household name. Like many aspiring thespians, she lists Viola Davis and Cate Blanchett among others as inspiration for their fearless, dedicated approach to their craft and being less focused on becoming a celebrity. You can do the same in your own career. What are roles that you see yourself in? What are your goals? Getting really clear on what it is that you want can help you easily identify the projects/work you should be accepting and those you should be walking away from.
Be the change you wish to see
Lupita is keenly aware of the current issues on representation of women of color in Hollywood. Her essay touches on the on-going conversation in Hollywood about diversity. She addresses the common, simple, and sometimes stereotypical roles women of color usually play. She says, “So often women of color are relegated to playing simple troupes: the sidekick, the best friend, the noble savage, or the clown.” In other words, most of the parts given to African American women are often small with little to no emotional depth. People of color should be given proper representation in entertainment. Rather than playing into troupes, Nyong’o explains she’s more interested in archetypes, if the character has a purpose to the story. There is a reason why she chose to play Maz Kanata, a wise thousand-year old pirate in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In our own lives, there are many times where we don’t visualize ourselves in certain spaces, simply because there has never been any representation for us there. Sometimes taking charge of your career means forging that unknown path and being the face that you’ve been searching for.
Make your own decisions
Lupita takes a very active role in choosing her roles. Despite us not seeing her face as much as we hoped after Oscar win, she is proud of the choices she’s made, especially joining the cast of Eclipsed. “I see work of incredible power that is transforming lives by daring to offer women of color fully rendered narratives,” she says. Nyong’o makes a point that despite participating in an acting job outside of Hollywood, it doesn’t make the job less valuable. “I look at this play and see nothing about it that is ‘small.’” How many of us are guilty of the title trap? The need for a fancy title is sometimes an indirect way to feel that the work we’re doing is “acceptable”. There’s nothing wrong with recognition but, don’t let titles or names distort your version of success. Taking charge of your career is about creating one that is best for YOU. Fancy title or not.