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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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  • MimiLuvs

    I grew up in a community where it was (and still is) predominantly black, but multi-cultural, so I interacted with families that were originally from African countries, as well as, from the West Indies.
    So, imagine my surprise, when I learned that not every American knows that all black people don’t share one culture.
    In regards to the article, I am “weirded out” by the media outlets’ adoration (as well as, judging panels for film festivals and award shows) for films in which the predominantly black cast portrays characters that are under extreme denigration (slavery, pre-Civil Rights era, etc.). My cousin once said, “Can a black actor receive a nomination for not playing a character in which they don’t have The Man’s boot on they neck?” She also questioned if a black actress can receive the same accolades if she starred in the other films that were nominated.
    They remind me of those Southern weirdos that love to romanticize the Antebellum South. Or they love to talk about the “good ole’ days” (which coincidentally is prior to the Civil Rights Act)with glassy eyes and with adoration.

  • SayWhat

    She felt Lupita was being ogled for her ‘exoticness’ and that she was willingly allowing herself to be Hollywood’s dark-skinned mannequin. …..I have a problem with this criticism because I feel beyonce allows herself to be the light-skinned/racially ambiguous mannequin and no one has a problem with that, so why this concern over Lupita? Who cares why they like her, I’m just glad they do.

    • vintage3000

      Exactly. I don’t get some Black women I’ve read online–if Lupita was being ignored they would be upset. She’s being ADORED and they want to over-analyze the ways of white folks to understand why she is being admired. I guess just in case there is some kind of ‘ism involved in the interest of this young lady.

      People need to freakin chill, and let this girl live and have her moment. It’s like so many of us are conditioned to see each other filtered through white eyes only, even when we are pro-Black. There is no White person anywhere on the planet analyzing what Black people think about Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johannes (sp), etc.

  • G

    Since the 1970’s every generation of young Black woman and girls have had the Black female who is “The It Girl; The Black Edition”.

    Pam Grier
    Jayne Kennedy
    Vonetta McGee
    Cicley Tyson
    Grace Jones

    I could go on . . . that being said, it is Lupita’s time to shine. And now every Black woman will be measured against her, as my generation was measured against the above named ladies.

    Funny thing is Gabby Sidibe, was never (as far as I know) referred to as “The It Girl; The Black Edition”.

    Wonder why that is?

    • geenababe

      Funny thing is Gabby Sidibe, was never (as far as I know) referred to as “The It Girl; The Black Edition”.

      You know why…her looks are a big factor and most black people think she not worthy of any praise because they view her as a stereotype. Who is only getting roles to make white people feel better about themselves and make black people look bad.

    • MimiLuvs

      @geenababe

      BINGO!!!
      But they will tell you in the next breath that we should’nt crave for the “white man’s validation”. I believe with these “concern trolls”, underneath it all, they have the desire to want to beat “The Man” at something. If it happens to be something as shallow as weight/physical looks, then they will take it. Take a look at Clutch, when there is an article that discusses weight and fatness, there will always be a comment which will compare and contrast obesity between different races of women.
      With those individuals, they will continue with their “Mammy” accusations towards Gaborey for the rest of her acting career, unless she loses a significant amount of weight. Then, they will find something else wrong with her.