The Return of Lupita: Why our girl is still a big deal in Hollywood

She is back. Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, the Oscar-winning actress whose script is still being written, is back in the limelight. Not that she was out of it anyway; since she won an Oscar in 2014 for her role as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave, she has graced red carpet events mostly as a supporting actress.

But last weekend, she was at the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of a film in which she plays a main role. In this latest movie, titled the Queen of Katwe, she is the widowed mother of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a Ugandan girl who becomes a chess champion.

Lupita’s story about her journey to the big screen has been told, and can be told, many times, and it sounds fresh every time. It is inspiring, for, every time it is written, there is always a new chapter, almost as interesting as, or even more thrilling, than the previous one. If the Queen of Katwe wins awards now that it is already receiving rave reviews, another glorious chapter will be added to the script that is her life story.

If it does not win, the story will not be about the film bombing at the box office, it will be about the short duration Lupita took to take Hollywood — and its attendant planet of fashion shows, red carpet events and endorsements — and the world by storm.

Even before she won the Oscar, she had already been cast in another movie, Non-Stop (2014), starring Liam Neeson, Michelle

Dockery and Julianne Moore, which Los Angeles Times described “a crisp, efficient thriller that benefits greatly from the intangibles Neeson can be counted on to supply.”

The following year, she was in StarWars: The Force Awakens about which she told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres “I didn’t really know what I was auditioning for. I was so busy, I was working with adrenaline so I went in and out. I barely remember that audition, and then two months later the director [JJ Abrams] called me.”

Lupita has been so busy and so sought-after that even when she cannot appear in a movie in flesh, she can lend it her voice, as it happened in Jungle Book, the 2016 fantasy adventure film directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Walt Disney Pictures.

The film is based on author Rudyard Kipling’s collective works and in it, Lupita voices Raksha, a female Indian wolf. In between providing voices for Indian wolves, flying into danger in Non-Stop and being unrecognisable in the sci-fi Star Wars, Lupita still managed to pull her act together in her major role in the Queen of Katwe, which is based on the true story of a young Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the Ugandan slums of Katwe, who rises from squalor and becomes a world champion chess player.

According to Chris Alexander writing for, Queen of Katwe is a movie “that opens a portal into a world that most of us will never visit…It’s a remarkable, human story and a gorgeous family film.”

Even though she did not start from squalor, Lupita’s journey resembles that of Phiona — whose character in the Queen of Katwe is played by Madina Nalwanga — as she also started at the bottom of the pile.

Lupita was very active in school plays in Rusinga School, which she joined after leaving Loreto Convent Msongari in Standard Six. When she left Rusinga, she went to Mexico for almost a year to study Spanish at the

Universidad Nacional Autónoma De Mexico. When she came back, Lupita joined St Mary’s School to study for her International Baccalaureate and quickly joined the local theatre scene which was not in such a good state.

The state of Kenya’s theatre did not make it easy for someone to choose acting as a career, but she did.

Focussed and determined, she would always ask her seniors if it was wise to peg her career on theatre. She needed to decide whether to change course or soldier on.

She might have loved acting, but a little parental push from Daddy also did the trick, considering that Professor

Anyan’g Nyong’o was an ardent theatre goer and was on a first name basis with the actors and directors.

He asked some directors if they could give the diminutive Lupita a chance to audition and determine if she was good enough for their productions. Even though Daddy had put in a good word for her, there was no preferential treatment because she had something extra:

She spoke very good English, without a tinge of the local slang. She was well-mannered, confident and very polished.

Polished Lupita has been. She has that bewitching, disarming, bedazzling smile — an innocent-looking face that never seems to age, but which can display all emotions as and when required. But behind that innocent smile, that childlike face, there has been some pain, some heartache caused by being discriminated against in Kenya, by her own people, Kenyans.

Some Kenyans thought that she needed to cosmetically brighten up her dark skin if she was going to make it on the silver screen. She did not feel beautiful.

“When I went back to Mexico that was the first time I really felt beautiful,” she told yours truly in a 2009 interview.

“In Mexico, there are no black people so they were all fascinated by my skin colour. For them, I was this exotic thing and people would stare at me when I walked down the street.”

When she came back home she entered the Miss Malaika pageant and went on to be crowned the inaugural winner in 2002.

“By entering the Miss Malaika contest, I was looking to reaffirm the self confidence that I had acquired in Mexico. I identified myself as beautiful and became even more beautiful as a result,” she said in the 2009 interview.

Even though Lupita did not feel beautiful as she admitted, she knew how to execute her roles. She surprised everyone when she went to Phoenix Players in 1997 to audition for a role. She was just 14 but was more confident than the seasoned actors and those who joined Phoenix when they were older.

She was ahead of her time. Most people were not treating theatre as a career, but as a hobby. They were not in it for the money but since they had bills to pay, they left to look for other jobs.

Those who worked with her in the Unicef-funded Shuga series in 2008 say that when it comes to staying focussed, no one beats her. When she was in Shuga, she did not receive much love from Kenyans who kept taunting her on new media platforms because of her dark skin and short hair. But the taunts did not dampen her spirit, and as usual, she stayed focussed on the project.

The negative comments did not bother the directors as they knew they had a rare and special breed of an actress, an all-rounder in theatrical arts; someone who could be depended on because she understood what was expected of, and from her.

In 2008, she wrote, directed and produced a documentary In My Genes, which shares the individual experiences of eight people living with albinism in Kenya.That work received high acclaim at various international festivals including the 2009 New York African Film Festival where she was the youngest filmmaker.

It was voted as the Official Souvenir Selection at the Africala Film Festival in Mexico and the Best Film 2008 and Best Documentary 2008 at the Pioneer Valley Five- College Film Festival in the United States.

The documentary was a part of her final thesis at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts which she attended for her undergraduate degree in Film and Theatre. Her final evaluation was so good that when she wanted to study for her Masters of Fine Arts in Dramatic Acting, she had many offers and had the confidence to turn down some prestigious institutions. She ended up at Yale. Not too shabby!

At 33, Lupita has achieved more than actors twice her age and considering her zeal, she will achieve more. As a star, she will shine for many more years.

Sebastiane Ebatamehi

I am a Writer and Online Publicist, destined to give a voice to the silent echoes and hush whispers that are seldom heard

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