Girls on Film: What if Lupita Nyong'o got the same roles as Jennifer Lawrence?
Projecting the arc of the 12 Years a Slave star's career by looking at Hollywood's other favorite leading lady
This Sunday is International Women's Day, a yearly event that has celebrated female achievements since the early twentieth century. This year's theme is "Inspiring Change" — and coming just one week after Lupita Nyong'o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her stellar work in 12 Years a Slave, there is no better time to look at how Nyong'o's rising fame could inspire real change in an industry desperately in need of it.
In just six months, the Mexican-Kenyan actress has risen from talented nobody to smashing success, media darling, fashion and style icon, and role model. The public has wholeheartedly embraced Nyong'o, elevating her to star status with a rush of adoration reminiscent of the woman she had to beat to win the Oscar: Jennifer Lawrence.
Their introductions to Hollywood are similar. Both were relative unknowns; Lawrence cut her teeth on mostly bit roles and television gigs; Nyong'o studied at Yale, starred in a Kenyan television series, and directed docs and music videos. Both achieved their big breaks in incredibly challenging dramas. Lawrence was the fearless teen who skinned squirrel in the name of authenticity for Winter's Bone; Nyong'o was the woman who stole scenes from the many seasoned acting veterans surrounding her in 12 Years a Slave.
And each was immediately embraced by our fickle media world. Lawrence became everyone's best friend, and the bodies of fellow young actresses like Anne Hathaway have been metaphorically thrown down onto the red carpet as J-Law has risen to the top. Her trips, stumbles, and guffaws were endearing, offering a light-hearted antidote to the struggles she portrayed on-screen. Nyong'o, on the other hand, has been positively regal, wowing us with her sense of style and poise. She's self-assured and smart in ways that even today's biggest talents still struggle to handle. "Lots of Oscar winners try to project humility," The Atlantic writes. But it was Nyong’o who gave "the most powerful, and memorable" speech on Sunday.
As it stands, Nyong'o has no other films in the works. She "is currently looking at a few different projects — including one from a studio that is eyeing her for a high-profile project." As she told The Hollywood Reporter, she is "listening to her gut" before she signs on the dotted line — a scenario that breeds both excitement and fear. The world should be her oyster — and as such, give her a slew of interesting projects. In some ways, her path is unprecedented: As Stacia L. Brown aptly wrote: "We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theater pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role."
But Hollywood has a long and flawed track record with actresses of color, which puts her future into question. Can the industry that struggles to find enough good work for actresses of color give Nyong'o the breadth of roles she deserves? Does Hollywood have the guts to offer her unexpected casting twists, like Idris Elba becoming a Norse god in Thor? Though she's broken into Hollywood quite similarly to Jennifer Lawrence, will her opportunities be the same?
What follows is a timeline of Lawrence's post-Winter's Bone work, and what Lupita Nyong'o's resume would look like if she was given similar opportunities. This isn't a case of should — some films have already been cast or shot — but a case of what if. In reality, Lawrence followed up her Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone with a small, supporting gig in Like Crazy, while Nyong'o is already on screen in her second film role, as a flight attendant in Non-Stop. What's next? Let's look at the opportunities Jennifer Lawrence was given — and see how Nyong'o's career would look if she was afforded the same chances:
2011 — Lawrence appears in The Beaver
A film in which an image-plagued Hollywood actor communicates through a beaver puppet — where Jennifer Lawrence had a side-gig as the son's classmate — would seem to be hard to match. But 2014 does see the release of the black comedy Frank. The film brings late comedian Chris Sievey's comic persona Frank Sidebottom to the big screen to tell the story of a man who hides behind a large, papier-mâché head. The film even stars Nyong'o's 12 Years a Slave co-star, Michael Fassbender, as the eponymous eccentric, and it's easy to see how a similar opportunity could enable her to show off her range.
2011 — Lawrence joins X-Men: First Class
If any of these hypothetical options had the potential to become real, it would be Nyong'o joining the X-Men. The X-Men franchise gave Lawrence her first huge film, and the universe has at least one very recognizable superhero Nyong'o could play: Storm. (In fact, this idea became a matter of public yearning when artist Mark Brooks took to Photoshop to give Nyong'o's Oscar look a little Stormy white hair.) There will be an opening if the franchise continues, and Nyong'o could bring some much-needed gravitas to a role that's been maligned by fans in the past.
2012 — Lawrence lands the Hunger Games franchise
This is where a Lawrence-style trajectory becomes slightly problematic for Nyong'o, who is seven years Lawrence's senior, and not the prime age for YA adaptations. That said, there are a number of dystopian tales with women of color protagonists, by female writers, that Nyong'o is eminently capable of headlining. Both Sherri L. Smith's Orleans and Karen Sandler's Tankborn would be good bets for Nyong'o's muscular frame (with a little age finagling). But Nyong'o's rising celebrity is also a reminder that we've yet to see any of award-winning sci-fi author Octavia Butler's work become a feature film: the Patternmaster and Xenogenesis series or her vampire novel Fledgling, would be great starts.
And if Nyong'o was deemed too old for this kind of role, there's always the impending return of the Star Wars franchise.
2012 — Lawrence dances her way through Silver Linings Playbook
2014 has already seen the release of Barefoot, a comparable rom-com that explores the intersection of psychiatric turmoil and romance — but since it was met with such negative reviews, it's best to imagine Nyong'o in the film adaptation of the next Matthew Quick novel instead. The writer wrote the book that Silver Linings Playbook was based on, and just released his next novel: The Good Luck of Right Now. Once again, the story features a struggling male protagonist who reacts oddly to culture, and has an idiosyncratic flirtation with a woman Nyong'o could play. Just to give this a taste of real possibility: The book has already been optioned by DreamWorks.
2012 — Lawrence hits a low point with House at the End of the Street
Insert generic horror film here. This horror film is one of Lawrence's career low-points. With room for improvement, however, it would be great to see Nyong'o break out of the typical "this house is scary" scenario and into some arthouse horror in the vein of Rosemary's Baby or campy deliciousness like Only Lovers Left Alive.
2013 — Hollywood dredges up Lawrence's past with The Devil You Know
There's a good reason you probably don't remember The Devil You Know: It's a feature shot when Lawrence was younger that was only pulled out of the archives because of her subsequent fame. For Nyong'o, this would mean getting to see her Kenyan show, or the documentary she filmed — In My Genes — about albinism in Kenya. (The film, by the way, would make her a good collaborator for a future adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor's YA novel Akata Witch, which follows a Nigerian-American girl with albinism.)
If we're dreaming about Nyong'o getting some female collaborations — Devil features Lena Olin and Rosamund Pike — she'd also be a great addition to Mike Binder's latest, Black and White, which is set to star Octavia Spencer, or the upcoming James Brown biopic, Get on Up, which features Spencer and The Help co-star Viola Davis amongst others.
2013 — Lawrence hits the awards circuit again with American Hustle
There aren't mounds of ABSCAM scandals to film, but there are plenty of true stories that would see Nyong'o face all manner of life. Riffing on the wrong side of the law, she could play gang leader Stephanie St. Clair or famed "Black Mafia Queenpin" Thelma Wright. Rather than the ridiculousness of Hustle wigs, Nyong'o could embody cotton fields-to-millionaire philanthropist A'Lelia Walker, the "Joy Goddess" of the Harlem Renaissance. Investigating more modern drama, she'd be a good pick for a cinematic treatment of Angela Davis' life, on the heels of the Shola Lynch documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Basically, there's an entire history to be mined here — and Hollywood is long overdue to tell it.
If she's truly given the same opportunities as Jennifer Lawrence over the next four years, Lupita Nyong'o will dig into strange comedy, become a superhero, fight to survive in a dystopian world, partake in unique love, face horrors, and dig into history that's never been told — and all of those stories would bring her back to the Academy's red carpet again and again. It's a beautiful thought. It's up to Hollywood to make it a reality.