Kenya: film star Lupita Nyong'o, icon in her country


Lupita Nyong’o no longer counts firsts. In 2014, she was the first black African woman to receive an Oscar, for her role in the film 12 Years A Slave by director Steve McQueen. Ten years later, the Kenyan actress and director became the first black president of the jury of the Berlinale, the film festival in the German capital. The crowning achievement of a decade of success on the big screen, like his role in Black Panther (2018), the first blockbuster featuring a black superhero.

The appointment of the native of the country at the head of the Berlinale, as prestigious as it is, went almost unnoticed in Kenya. Born in Mexico, Lupita Nyong’o, 40, grew up in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, before moving to the United States in 2010 to pursue her career. If she remains an icon on her land, and more particularly in Kisumu, the town bordering Lake Victoria where her father holds the post of governor, Lupita Nyong’o is “now perceived by Kenyan youth almost as a Hollywood star among others , assures Simon Otieno, director of the faculty of arts at the University of Nairobi. She’s obviously Kenyan and we’re all proud of her, but she’s become a sort of distant cousin. »

By winning the Oscar for best supporting actress, the actress “ gave an incredible spotlight to Africa in general and to Kenya in particular ,” assures director Likarion Wainaina. We suddenly became visible, it was easier for Kenyan actors and directors to be recognized abroad.” If, before her, the actors Oliver Litondo and Edi Gathegi had already raised the colors of Kenya in Hollywood, she allowed a new generation of Kenyan artists to emerge, embodied by the director of the film Rafiki , Wanuri Kahiu, who has since made a film for Netflix.

However, contrary to the explosion of productions made in Nigeria, the film industry remains embryonic in Kenya. “Of course, as in many African countries, we manage to make more films than twenty years ago, but we have serious structural problems, due to corruption, lack of investment in film production and in the distribution of films,” adds the director. Today, young Kenyan producers owe their salvation in part to international platforms, such as Netflix and Showmax, which are gradually investing in the continent.

His theater debut at age 14

“If Kenyan cinema is in danger, we can say that local theater is already dead,” laments Professor Simon Otieno. Nairobi’s last private theater, the downtown Phoenix Theater, where Lupita Nyong’o made her debut at age 14 in Romeo and Juliet , closed in 2018. Now only the National Theater remains for the five million inhabitants of the capital.

George Mungai was the first director of “Lupita” at the Phoenix Theater and the one who starred in the role of Romeo. A quarter of a century later, he would like to see the Oscar-winning actress reach out to a sector that is collapsing. “I am extremely admiring of her success and I would like her to also carry out projects in Kenya. Here, we have incredible potential, many promising actors like her, but we are losing them because it has become financially almost impossible to make a career here,” he notes.

Since her departure to the United States, Lupita Nyong’o has only returned to her land during discreet private visits. She never contacted her director again, just as she did not respond to multiple requests from the University of Nairobi, whether to support a national school program for initiation to the performing arts or when the institution wanted to decorate it with an honorary diploma, specifies Simon Otieno.

A distance that some attribute to the management of his calendar by his Hollywood agents. In 2021, the Kenyan government created controversy by choosing Naomi Campbell as Kenya’s symbolic ambassador to the world to the detriment of Lupita Nyong’o. The tourism minister at the time dryly declared: “We have tried to contact Lupita for five years without getting a response from her. »

Became a director and producer

The one who plays Nakia in the film Black Panther nevertheless multiplies artistic projects on the continent. Having become a director and producer, she co-produced the film Goodbye Julia (2023), the first Sudanese feature film present in the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival. She is also working on adapting two successful books by African authors for the screen: Americanah by Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Born A Crime by South African comedian Trevor Noah.

In Kenya, she is co-producing Super Sema in 2021, an Afro-futuristic cartoon, with several local start-ups made up entirely of women. Super Sema is the story of a young African heroine with superpowers. It’s very important to me because I would have liked to have had this kind of example when I was a little girl,” underlined Lupita Nyong’o at the launch of the series. The theme is dear to him. Two years previously, she wrote a book for children, Sulwe , which recounts the long journey of a young African girl determined to accept her difference and her black beauty.

“Her greatest gift to Africa is the way she is changing mentalities, both in the West and on our continent,” comments Mugambi Nthiga, an actor and director who worked with the same theater troupe as Africa. ‘actress. “In Nairobi, we still remember his speech at the Oscars ceremony,” he smiles. Ten years ago in Los Angeles, Lupita Nyong’o declared that winning the golden statuette proved “to all the children, that no matter where you come from, your dreams are worth something.”

His little sentence seems to have created vocations. “In the schools where I teach drama, all the young girls cite her, and want to become the next Lupita,” says director Nicholas Adongo, originally from the town of Kisumu . It’s been ten years already but its influence is intact. » “Whatever she does from now on, she will have already achieved the feat of being an inspiration in Kenya. As for his future commitments in the country, I believe that we must respect his artistic itinerary, regardless of where it takes him,” reassures Likarion Wainaina, according to whom “each artist, at some point in his career, tells himself that he must give back and she will one day.”

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