There is no denying that actress Lupita Nyong’o is having one of the best years of her career. From starring in the Oscar-winning historical piece 12 Years a Slave to landing a coveted role as part of Disney’s upcoming Star Wars Episode VII, the 31-year-old star has reached accolades that many well-seasoned performers have yet to achieve. Regardless of race or age, the young starlet’s acting skills have broken through barriers and made her a household name. Many would consider Lupita Nyong’o to be America’s next sweetheart.
Over the decades, actresses that have reached a certain level of notoriety and success in popular culture earn the title “America’s Sweetheart” by multiple media outlets. It is similar to receiving the title of People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” There is no endorsement or revenue that follows rather than acclaim and a known acceptance into the hearts of fans nationwide. Over the past few decades the title has been used to describe many stars following a blockbuster movie. In the ’80s, it was given to Julia Roberts for her performance in Pretty Woman. Meg Ryan earned it for her hilarious and charismatic performance in When Harry Met Sally.
There is no Webster’s Dictionary definition of the popular phrase, which was coined in 1914, but it is most commonly used to describe a well-known actress or star that has become an iconic role model and household name. Although most commonly associated with blonde, white, Anglo-Saxon, romantic comedy actresses with an innocent beauty, there is no reason why Lupita Nyong’o’s name should not be synonymous with this adjective.
Born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, Nyong’o has always been surrounded by culture and a love for the arts. While attending Kenya’s Rusinga International School, her first minor role as an actress was in Oliver Twist. She later went on to perform with the Nairobi-based Phoenix Player’s in a string of plays, until later making her acting debut in the 2008 Marc Grey directed short East River. Nyong’o later returned to Kenya to star in the MTV series Shuga, a drama about HIV/AIDS prevention. After starring in three seasons of the series and pursuing other small ventures in directing and producing, America’s Sweetheart enrolled in a master’s degree program at Yale’s School of Drama. At Yale, she appeared in many stage productions, including Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale, Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It was not until her breakthrough performance as the resilient yet beautiful slave, Patsey, in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave that Lupita Nyong’o gained nationwide fame and an Oscar win, changing her from semi-obscurity to the face of one of America’s sweethearts.
With the recent announcement of her role in the much anticipated Star Wars Episode VII movie opposite Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, along with John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson, Nyong’o has the potential to make history and be the first African-American female protagonists in a Star Wars trilogy, becoming part of a series that is virtually timeless worldwide. Of all the awards and achievements of her career, Lupita Nyong’o has broken barriers that separate many prominent Hollywood actresses of color from being considered in popular culture and accepted into the average American home as the face of one of America’s Sweethearts.
Opinion by Tyler Cole