An Academy Award can mean many things, but it’s never the solution to a problem. That reminder landed brutally in late April, when Lupita Nyong’o, the actress whose Oscar for 12 Years a Slave was the Cinderella story of this year’s ceremony, entered final talks for her first major post-prize gig. She’ll be playing the mother wolf in a remake of The Jungle Book.
You read that right. Hollywood is handed a beautiful, talented, Yale School of Drama-trained actress of color, and what does it come up with? Well, let’s see…she could be an animal. In the Third World.
I’m not judging this film or its makers — they, after all, had the good taste to hire her. And I imagine the role will give her more to do than was the case with her recent appearance as a flight attendant in the Liam Neeson action film Non-Stop. (What? You didn’t realize she was in it? You’re not alone.) I am, however, judging the producers, executives, and casting agents who sit in meetings and say, “Lupita Nyong’o? Yeah, she was amazing in 12 Years. And she’d certainly be an interesting flavor for this part, but maybe just a little…outside the box. You know who’d be a really interesting flavor? Emma Stone.” Yes, the movie business is tough, and whatever your race, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar guarantees you nothing, especially in a field in which women are considered old at 31. But the evidence is the evidence: When the people who make movies look at Lupita Nyong’o, they see a slave, a stewardess, and an “exotic.” On that level, the range of opportunities for a black actress on the big screen in 2014 doesn’t look all that different than it did in 1967, the first time Disney made The Jungle Book.
This is not a case in which the world needs to catch up to the idea of racial diversity; it’s a case in which movies need to catch up to the world. Around the time that talks were announced, the highest-rated network TV show of the week among 18-to 49-year-olds was the season finale of Scandal. The first successful network drama starring a black woman in history beat everything else in sight. Scandal is groundbreaking in part because it’s an immense hit without being panderingly “postracial.” If anything, over time, the show’s writers have become more confident about using Olivia Pope’s African-American identity in witty, pointed, and unpredictable ways, whether it’s to have her crisply dismiss a white candidate’s chance of an NAACP endorsement or to have her father offer a particularly savage riff on a famous phrase — “Oh, to be young, gifted, and black” — just before dispatching another African-American character to oblivion.
It is, of course, no accident that the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, is the most powerful black woman not named Oprah in television. She’s got the clout to spike Scandal with sharp, fleeting commentary, just as she has the clout to cast the magnificent Tony-winning actress Viola Davis at the center of a new drama that’s all but certain to join ABC’s schedule next season. (Remember all the lead movie roles Davis got after The Help? Me neither.) That is great news for those of us who would be happy to watch Davis all the time, in anything. But it’s also a rebuke to anyone in Hollywood who ever called her a “strong presence” and then didn’t hire her, or described Nyong’o as “unusual” and then went in another direction, or decided that the only reason Halle Berry didn’t take off after Monster’s Ball was that she “made bad choices.” (She did. So do white actors. The imbalance lies in how many strikes you get before you’re out.) If you’re looking for Berry, by the way, she’s starring on a new CBS drama, because it turns out it’s not all that hard to put an African-American actress at the center of a show — and not because she’s an “interesting flavor.” I hope The Jungle Book works for Nyong’o. But I wouldn’t blame anyone who opted to stay home and watch TV instead.