Lupita Nyong'o — Mexican and Kenyan Superstar

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With Lupita Nyong'o’s rapid ascent to Hollywood stardom, both Mexico and Kenya have rushed to claim her as their own. So much so, that Lupita had had to publicly put the debate to rest. “I've seen the quarrels over my nationality, but I'm Kenyan and Mexican at the same time”.

Lupita’s parents, Dorothy & Peter, were born and grew up in Kenya, and belong to the Luo ethnic group from Eastern Uganda and Tanzania. Her father worked as the Minister for Medical Services in the Kenyan government before moving to Mexico with his family, where he took up the post as a guest political science lecturer at El Colegio de Mexico. It was in Mexico City that Lupita was born, second among 6 siblings. From the day Lupita was born, she was cross-cultural, and now channels her diverse heritage through her linguistic ability, being fluent in Luo, English, Spanish & Swahili.

As a child, Lupita moved from Mexico City to New York City, before returning to Nairobi, Kenya. For a large chunk of her childhood she grew up in a middle-class region of Nairobi, apart from a seven-month stint where her parents allowed her to move to Mexico to live with an elder sister for seven months and perfect her Spanish. After graduating from school in Nairobi, Lupita headed to the United States for college. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts with a degree in film and theatre studies. After completing her coursework, she worked on a number of films as part of the production team. This included work on the set of ‘The Constant Gardener’ and ‘The Namesake’. These films built upon her desire to act, which had developed as a young child performing for her family members.

Lupita returned to Kenya for television and independent film roles from 2008 - 2009. She honed her craft as a filmmaker by directing, editing and producing the 2009 documentary ‘In My Genes’ which followed the stories of several Kenyans who are living with albinism.

It is a terrific film, a study in race and identity and the arbitrary nature of pigmentation. Lupita says it was a subject she identified with because she, too, had once been told she was the wrong colour – in her case, it was a casting agent who said, “I was too dark to be on TV.” She says, “to think that I was on the other end of the colour spectrum, when it comes to my complexion, yet we were experiencing similar discrimination. I think that’s what drew me to that subject.” The casting agent was auditioning Nyong’o for a local commercial in Nairobi and the actor was horrified by what was said. The fact that she could, with some effort, shrug it off, is in no small part down to her mother, who said “you can do anything you put your mind to.'' It occurred to Lupita that she shouldn’t change what she wanted to do. She needed to change how she was going to do it.

She became a star of Kenyan television in ‘Shuga’, an MTV/UNICEF-backed series that looked at sexual relationships among youth in Nairobi, aiming to promote HIV awareness and safe sex via storytelling.  

Lupita returned to the United States and, pursuing her interest in acting, earned a master's degree from the Yale School of Drama in 2012, having performed in works like ‘The Winter's Tale’ with the school's Repertory Theatre. Weeks before graduating she found out that she had landed a part in director Steve McQueen's drama ‘12 Years a Slave’. The Brad Pitt-produced film is based on the 19th century narrative written by Solomon Northup, a Northern-based free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Lupita played the role of Patsey, an enslaved young woman who befriends Northup while being horrifically abused by plantation master Edwin Epps and his wife. For her performance in the film, she earned a slew of award nominations, before taking home the 2014 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her thank you speech is testament to her understanding of the role slavery has played in the history of the United States:

“Thank you to the Academy for this incredible recognition. 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. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own.”

Lupita has continued her steep ascent into Hollywood stardom, having starred in blockbusters such as ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and ‘Black Panther’, which shattered stereotypes about the limitations of marketing a largely black cast. She is currently working with Brad Pitt on producing ‘Americanah’, the forthcoming adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, which will be Lupita’s first starring role.   

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Learn more:

Kenya and Mexico feud over Lupita’s nationality.

Lupita’s TCK heritage is detailed here, as is info on how she redefined beauty in Hollywood.

Lupita wins an Oscar for ’12 Years a Slave’.