Effortlessly African

2016-10-09 07:14
Lupita Nyong’o attends the Queen of Katwe premiere during the 2016 Toronto InternationalFilm Festival. Picture: Getty images

Lupita Nyong’o attends the Queen of Katwe premiere during the 2016 Toronto InternationalFilm Festival. Picture: Getty images

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Hollywood star Lupita Nyong’o has only played African roles on the international silver screen, but feels no pressure to become a representative of Africa and the continent’s women.

“I honestly don’t feel like my role is a responsibility – it’s an opportunity. I’m not African with any effort, it’s just who I am,” she says.

Nyong’o was in Joburg this week for the local premiere of the Disney film Queen of Katwe, in which she plays the role of Harriet Nakku, the stoic mother of Ugandan chess protégé Phiona Mutesi.

In a candid conversation with City Press after the film’s premiere, Nyong’o spoke about the importance of African stories.

“What’s so important about this film is that it’s told with humanity, and [film director] Mira [Nair] tells it with the specificity of Katwe, but also the universality of humanity,” Nyong’o says.

“And that’s how I see my role, and how empowering it is to make such work on a global level, where I can be that image for a young girl or young boy is really meaningful and I don’t do it with any effort. It’s just the conviction of my heart to do the things I do.”

Nyong’o was recently the star of a cover shoot by fashion bible US Vogue, which was shot in Kenya and also featured her grandmother, an indication of how much she values her homeland.

“Harriet is a woman who is dignified no matter how much money she has in her pocket, and that’s the truth of the woman that I met, and she was radical enough to make it on her own with her four children in a society where the average age of a mother is 15. She became a mother at 15,” she says of her character in the film.

“And at 30, when we meet her, burdened by life, she is determined to make it on her own. She is a tenacious woman, a woman of principle and a woman who sacrifices everything for her children, except her principles.

"And the fact that the story [on which the movie is based] is true means she represents so many others like her. She’s an example of fortitude, and I just had to marvel at that.”

Nyong’o says she knew after reading only 10 pages of the film’s script that she wanted to be a part of the project. Nair had her in mind for the character.

“I was drawn to the story and I see the magic that Disney saw in it, because Disney believes in sparking dreams and imagination, especially in children, and it does so magnificently.

"It does so with this film, and it’s a true story, so that was extremely powerful to me because I see why it appealed to Disney – it is the magic of real life.”

Nyong’o committed because of the film’s complexity and nuance, and it’s relatable characters, “and on top of all of that, it was African”.

“It was an oasis really, because nothing had crossed my desk that was like that.”

Nyong’o’s choice to play African characters on screen has not been a deliberate choice.

“I choose roles that move me, roles that speak to me and it just so happens that so far those have been African,” she says.

“I am so excited that there are going to be kids all over the world who will be trying to say the words from the film, trying to make the gestures from the film, which is really wonderful.”


Do you think Nyong’o’s role in Queen of Katwe will inspire adults and children around the world to succeed?

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