Lupita Nyong'o, the 12 Years a Slave starlet who just might win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, is becoming an American It Girl. But despite the fact that she was born in Mexico, went to college in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and found fame in Hollywood, Kenya wants the world to know she is Kenyan. "She may have been born in Mexico, but she is made in Kenya," Ciku Kimani wrote Friday at Kenya's The Daily Nation. Kimani continued:
And no, her talent did not spring up in Hollywood, even though that famous American address elevated her to the world stage. And so, although the critics may write a little about her prominent family, touch a little on her role as a production crew in The Constant Gardener and Shuga, not to mention her documentary In My Genes, the girl is, for all intents and purposes, Kenyan to the core.
In My Genes follows eight albino men and women in Kenya, The Constant Gardener is a drama starring Ralph Fiennes, and Shuga is Kenya's version of Skins meets The OC. In the piece, "The Rise and Rise of Lupita Nyong'o," Kimani interviews the people who knew Lupita way back when, like the actor who played the Romeo to her Juliet over 15 years ago, and her fellow cast and crew members:
The journey to Hollywood for Lupita, according to the Western press, started during her involvement with the making of The Constant Gardener, thus this would not be complete without a couple of anecdotes from Mwaniki Njache, an actor and director who worked alongside Lupita on the set as an Assistant Director. ...
“Many people in the crew wondered why a girl from a privileged background would work on a film set as a runner,” remembers Mwaniki. “But, within a very short time, she proved to us all that she was a dedicated hard worker.
It goes on like that. Everyone loves her, she's talented, dedicated, hard working, etc. She's their Jennifer Lawrence, but in better control of her bowels. No one can blame Kenya for being proud, but what is surprising, both here and back home, is that she's equally loved in America. Her red carpet style is worshipped, she's asked banal questions about her childhood and family during interviews, and her beauty is constantly referenced in a way that overshadows her intelligence and credentials. And as counterintuitive as this sounds, that's great. Nyong'o is a dark-skinned, Mexican-born Kenyan-bred actress with short, natural hair and Kenyans love that we love her. As Rasna Warah, also at The Daily Nation, wrote:
Lupita has managed to do what Barack Obama couldn’t do despite his Kenyan roots – she has “normalised” Kenyan-ness on the international scene. (Obama’s experiences in Kenya were not always positive, and he barely knew his father.)
Lupita’s easy charm, intellect and talent have won her millions of fans, but what sets her apart from other African movie stars is her matter-of-factness about who she is.
That normalization is already apparent in the countless interviews she's done. For instance, in an interview with Jimmy Fallon earlier this month, Nyong'o talked with Fallon about her father, a senator, and her sister, one of the 20 most powerful women in Africa. She also had to teach him, along with countless other nighttime talk show hosts, how to say her last name:
And as annoying as it is to constantly hear your name mispronounced (as anyone with an "unusual" name knows), every time she reminds someone of the soft "g," the name is a little less foreign. So imagine if she wins the Oscar — Kenyans sure have.
In Kenya, at least one church held a thanksgiving mass in her honor. "To celebrate her acting career, a thanksgiving mass for the 12 Years a Slave star will be held today, Sunday at Ridgeway Baptist Church in Nairobi," wrote Kenya's The Standard. "Her family, friends and fans are congregating in the church, to dedicate the special mass to her." Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta tweeted out congrats when she was nominated by the Academy:
Lupita's own parents expressed their pride when they went to a screening of 12 Years a Slave in Kisumu, Kenya, when the movie opened last week. “I am so proud of Lupita because she has lifted the nation’s name so high,” her mother, Mrs Nyong’o, told Kenya's The Standard.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.