It’s been four days since Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, much to the relief of those of us still shattered by her performance in Steven McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave—and those of us who are tired of JLaw’s “look at me, I’m a real girl, I curse and burp and fall” antics. Four blissful days to tearfully rewatch Lupita’s acceptance speech, remark on her incredible grace, and wonder how the hell it is that every color and fabric makes her skin so unbelievably radiant.
To remark on her beauty is not to distract from her character, or from what was a moving and important speech—and a much-needed dose of reality during a three-hour show devoted to self-congratulation and Hollywood pomp and circumstance. Both she and McQueen were quick to acknowledge the painful reality of the subject of their film.
For months, all eyes have been on Lupita, eager to label her an It Girl, stick her on Best Dressed Lists, and talk about her on Fashion Police. And not that she doesn’t deserve to be celebrated in this way—but her significance, and the significance of the public’s celebration of her, stretches much further than her wardrobe which, admittedly, is dope.
As the first black African to win an Oscar, and the seventh black actress to win one, Lupita’s win represents more than just a rewarding of outstanding talent (which, let’s be real, the Oscars aren’t even about); it represents recognition. The racial politics of Hollywood and its award shows deserve a discussion all of their own—and a long one at that—but, they definitely come into play when the past two black actresses to win Oscars won them for playing a maid and a slave, respectively (Octavia Spencer won in 2011 for playing the help in The Help). So, to say that it’s refreshing to see a black woman winning an award may sound crass; but it comes in the same breath as the question: When are we going to see a black woman win an award for playing a character who isn’t, in one way or another, being oppressed?
None of this takes away from how affirmative it is to see Lupita riding this wave of popular approval, and being so graceful every step of the way. At the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, hosted by Essence magazine, she acknowledged that the lack of dark-skinned actresses in popular media convinced her, as a child, that she wasn’t beautiful.
Steering clear of fetishizing or exoticizing her—which is a very real concern in conversations to do with women of color and beauty—it only takes a brief scroll though Tumblr, a look at any of BuzzFeed’s lists devoted to her, or any of the pictures of Jared Leto gazing at her intensely to see that her beauty is pretty universally and very publicly acknowledged. And ultimately what’s at stake when we call her beautiful or give her an award is, for a lot of people, a much-needed validation.
Correction: This article previously mistakenly stated that Dallas Buyer's Club actor Jared Leto failed to mention HIV/AIDS victims in his acceptance speech. The Eye regrets the error.