While TIME Magazine gears up for its annual 100 Most Influential People issue—one that features politicians, artists, women who made a difference for women, minorities overcoming the plight of inequality—People magazine is sticking to its guns, reporting on stories about “Every Selfie Anna Kendrick Has Ever Taken” to crowning Lupita Nyong’o as the Most Beautiful Person in the World.
It’s an amazing thing to see a woman with dark skin on the cover of a magazine circulating in a predominantly-white culture. Movies are white-obsessed, the very Academy Awards that bestowed an Oscar upon Nyong’o for her role in 12 Years a Slave—the first film “about” slavery to win Best Picture—is white-washed (94%, to be exact), and our collective desire last year was to see this sort of overturning of the status quo become the status quo.
Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that 12 Years a Slave is not the sort of groundbreaking film we all so desperately want it to be. It was objectified for its racial components (albeit for a positive cause) and, while still a perfectly acceptable, appropriate choice for the Academy, their decision could impact how future films about black characters fare at the Oscars (i.e., the “been there, done that” mentality might come into play.)
Some might say that Nyong’o, however, is a trailblazer. She’s breaking barriers within an industry that has tipped in the favor of the young, white, male actor. In an age where Pharrell is recontextualizing the image of Marilyn Monroe for his latest single cover and films like 12 Years a Slave are winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it should be obvious that the tide is turning in favor of the minority voice, but it just doesn’t feel that way.
The fact remains that, by awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, the Academy essentially fulfilled a circular, pre-constructed prophecy that was waiting in the wings, bound to be completed whenever it was most appropriate. After films about minorities like The Color Purple and Brokeback Mountain missed out on a gold-laden party, accusations of bigotry within the Academy intensified. It reached a head this year, with outside pressure mounting as the Black New Wave movement saw the release of three high-profile films from black directors (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in addition to 12 Years a Slave) take the awards race by storm. Timing is everything.
86 years of black filmmakers taking a backseat to the white pictures, directors, and actors resulted in a monumental Best Picture victory for Steve McQueen’s period drama about Solomon Northrup, a free black man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into the southern slave trade. It’s a film with real-world implications for both Hollywood and American society. Racism is not a historical fantasy; it exists in every corner of the nation, and the minority is so often stifled in the film industry.
It’s clear that the Academy never really warms up to films laced with controversy, and 12 Years a Slave forces us to confront these issues and shouldn’t have to apologize for its mere existence because it doesn’t make the whole thing look pretty. Yet, all you’d hear coming out of industry parties was that Academy members weren’t watching 12 Years a Slave because it was difficult to sit through. Its members shy away from controversy and gravitate toward crowd-pleasing fare, and it’s difficult to please the majority when whips, flesh, blood, and the implications of modern racial inequality are looming over Academy members’ shoulders as they vote.
The Academy heeded the pressure to make a monument out of the past Oscar year; 12 Years a Slave was a headline. It was the first “black” film, directed by a black director, starring a predominantly-black cast, to win the Best Picture Oscar. The white voting majority took it upon themselves to so graciously lower their standards, and they heeded outside pressure to award the film a compensatory win for every Do The Right Thing, Precious, or The Color Purple that slipped through the cracks.
Nyong’o’s arc of success rode similar superficial waves. She was consistently played up as a “fashion icon” on the red carpet. Her dresses became the conversation; the bright colors were the distraction from the brutal situation her character endured. She became an image instead of a person. She was the beautiful red carpet fixture being asked about her dresses versus the preparation she had to do for the role or how difficult it must have been to play the part of a woman who endured the hardships of slavery in real life. The conversation always turned to who she was wearing, her charm, her pizazz, how beautiful she is while the boys discussed the craft. That’s all empty, fading praise, just like the cover of a magazine celebrating exterior beauty. It’s almost as if the film and its cast had to distract the industry from the stigma of being “too difficult to watch” that the film had taken on, and Nyong’o’s People Magazine cover is still a ripple in that pond.
The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave did not succeed based on the votes of an equal Academy voting base. There are far more men than women, far more white voters than there are from any other race, and far more older people than there are younger. 12 Years a Slave found a way to appeal to the white majority. The accomplishment will come when the black filmmakers are able to reap the same benefits that white actors do after winning an Oscar.
This year’s cover of People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue hasn’t entirely missed the mark, however. It does celebrate women and diversity, namely select women who’ve made a difference in the film industry over the course of the past year.
The cover itself also features two women over 40 (Julia Roberts and Juliana Margulies) alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who’s a female movie star proving that:
1) While the age of the true movie star is dying, actresses like Lawrence and Sandra Bullock can still drive box-office and headline films almost single-handedly
2) That women can drive a film to the top-earning domestic spot at the yearly box-office (Catching Fire took in over $400 million in the US alone, while Frozen grossed over $1 billion globally)
But, what are the long-lasting implications for a woman like Nyong’o, who can lay claim to such a title bestowed by People, yet go home to a script pile that’s nowhere near as bountiful as the one Jennifer Lawrence gets to pour over?
I’d love to see Nyong’o get as many magazine covers as she can, but “Fashion Icon” and “Most Beautiful Woman” are fading titles. What Nyong’o needs is a casting director willing to take what the rest of the industry would consider being a risk by placing her in a high-profile role originally intended for a white actor (or even a man). What Nyong’o needs is work. She doesn’t need frivolous praise; she endured it enough on the red carpet.
The cover is an accomplishment and a step in the right direction. Visibility is visibility, and that’s key to changing the standard. My gripe is not with the magazine itself, but with the industry at large. Nyong’o is being heralded as the “It” black girl, as if there’s only one to choose from. Bigger changes need to happen before we can find solace and comfort in her presence on the cover.
The awards cycle has turned Nyong’o and 12 Years a Slave into is a flavor of the moment. Flavors fade. The next black film to come along will likely be shunned by Oscar voters because they’ve been there and done that with 12 Years a Slave. So, will the People magazine cover matter after she’s taken the inevitable Halle Berry route post-Oscar? Or will the roles open up to her? Will she get the chance to headline prominent films originally intended for white actresses? Will a studio have the balls to change a script–alter character, race, and gender–to fit her in, to give her a chance, to truly make her Oscar mean something?
Could Lupita Nyong’o be the next Ellen Ripley?
Absolutely: whether the industry around her is ready and willing to foster such a thing remains to be seen.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi