African Coolness

I’ve been fightin’ like the dickens to refrain from indulging in judgment and/or criticism of 12 Years A Slave, plus mainstream media’s apparent obsession with Lupita Nyong’o. It wasn’t a serious issue, but I could sense some unease when confronted with copious coverage of the stunning breakthrough actress. I sensed tokenism was at play. I even harbored some resentment that Nelson Mandela’s story of triumph seemed overshadowed by Hollywood’s tendency to reward Black tales of toil over those of triumph. But I gotta thank Melinda Ozongwu’s for her fabulous piece inspired by Vanity Fair’s recent spread titled “Suddenly, Being African is Cool.” Her thoughtfully fresh perspective led the way out of that critical cycle.

“Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba and Chimamanda Adichie don’t resemble images of Africans that Americans are used to seeing. The cumulative effect of more such stars will adjust stereotypes and leave permanent change,” Ozongwu wrote. Melinda went on to explain how she left London to study in LA and experienced the damndest thing: American styled segregation as well as sweeping ignorance of Africa and her inhabitants. Curiosity took hold. I wondered: “Is this gonna be some ‘Hallelujah, we’ve finally received mainstream acceptance!!’ piece?”  So I read on.

“When I saw the famous 2014 Vanity Fair ‘New Kids on The Block’ gatefold cover shot, the presence of African actors Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor seemed slightly more significant than the obvious benefits of the magazine cashing in from all the hype. Three Africans on Hollywood’s hottest list… very much represents a forward moving message of African coolness. The international perception of Africans may still be somewhat impoverished and narrow, but that perception is changing rapidly with pop culture.”

Regardless of the characters they’ve portrayed, the aforementioned actors embody attributes worthy of blowing stereotypes to bits. “I don’t quite know if America understands who these cool Africans are,”  Ozongwu said. “Lupita, Chiwetel and Idris don’t resemble images of Africans that Americans are used to seeing. Do they understand that there are Africans living internationally by choice and not just circumstance, not searching for a way out of horrible, poor Africa?”

Just for a moment, Ozongwu was able to help this American see through the eyes of a modern, westernized African woman. Hollywood can’t define any culture, it’s the images they portray that shape public opinion (particularly a lazy one that mistakenly uses TV & movies as their primary source of knowledge).

Fully aware of the fleeting, fickle nature of fame, Melinda Ozongwu is hopeful that the “cumulative effect of the more visible global African stars will adjust stereotypes and leave permanent change.”

“For us, the spotlight on these global stars is a nice distraction from our politics and problems, or the problems caused by our politics, and it will also take some getting used to. I had a conversation with a friend who was uncomfortable with the media’s fixation with Lupita. She felt Lupita was being ogled for her ‘exoticness’ and that she was willingly allowing herself to be Hollywood’s dark-skinned mannequin. That the attention was in reality some sort of obsession masking America’s discomfort with race, and an overcompensation for what Lupita symbolised with her role in 12 Years A Slave. I say, let them be obsessed, so that an image that is so familiar to us becomes less unfamiliar to them. Let them learn to pronounce our names and enjoy our beauty. And let us enjoy the celebration because they came late to the party. They are just confirming what we’ve known all along – we’re pretty damn cool.”

Despite Hollywood & co’s (hidden) agenda, the shine received by African actors as of late manages to diminish a few shadows cast by stereotypes (a burden no culture should have to bear). Upon reflection, I credit this story for helping to identify the root of my own discomfort. I have no qualms with these celebrated films; it’s just that two excellent movies featuring brilliant Black actors are simply not enough for me. To put it plainly: I want MORE!

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