Lupita Nyong’o: The True Superhero of Marvel Espionage

Lupita Nyong’o was born into a family of dissidents who were all too familiar with the world of espionage, then spent the early stages of her career carrying terrible secrets about powerful men who could crush her ambitions. Now, Lupita Nyong’o has shaken off the unwanted intrigue and realized those ambitions in spectacular fashion, and she returns to Wakanda to reprise her role as the state’s most accomplished spy, Nakia, in the Black Panther films. Given her history, it’s a role that this True Superhero is uniquely qualified to play.

Lupita Nyong’o: The True Superhero of Marvel Espionage

An intriguing family

Lupita was born in 1983 in Mexico City, into an influential Kenyan family. The Nyong’o’s had fled Kenya three years previously following the political assassination of Lupita’s uncle, Charles. Charles and Lupita’s father, Peter, were dissidents who opposed the rule of Kenya’s new President, Daniel Moi, and Peter had previously been rounded up by security forces and tortured. Although no witnesses ever testified to the events surrounding Charles’s death, it was well known that he had been assaulted on a ferry in Mombasa, and subsequently thrown off of the boat. His body was never found.

Lupita Nyong’o: The True Superhero of Marvel Espionage

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Lupita Nyong’o was born into a family of dissidents who were all too familiar with the world of espionage, then spent the early stages of her career carrying terrible secrets about powerful men who could crush her ambitions. Now, Lupita Nyong’o has shaken off the unwanted intrigue and realized those ambitions in spectacular fashion, and she returns to Wakanda to reprise her role as the state’s most accomplished spy, Nakia, in the Black Panther films. Given her history, it’s a role that this True Superhero is uniquely qualified to play.

Lupita Nyong’o: The True Superhero of Marvel Espionage

An intriguing family

Lupita was born in 1983 in Mexico City, into an influential Kenyan family. The Nyong’o’s had fled Kenya three years previously following the political assassination of Lupita’s uncle, Charles. Charles and Lupita’s father, Peter, were dissidents who opposed the rule of Kenya’s new President, Daniel Moi, and Peter had previously been rounded up by security forces and tortured. Although no witnesses ever testified to the events surrounding Charles’s death, it was well known that he had been assaulted on a ferry in Mombasa, and subsequently thrown off of the boat. His body was never found.

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Peter took a job as a visiting professor at universities in Mexico City and Addis Ababa, but returned to Kenya with his family in 1987 to take a job at the African Academy of Sciences. Although he continued to work surreptitiously to foster democratic opposition to Daniel Moi, he managed to avoid further encounters with the Kenyan secret service, and was also able to provide Lupita with a relatively privileged upbringing. She traveled extensively during her education, spending time in Spain and the United States, but her acting career began in Nairobi when she was cast as Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet, aged just 14. Even at that age her talent was immediately obvious, and she began to pursue a career as an actor which led to her enrolling at Yale School of Drama. 

A powerful predator

It was at this early point in her career that she first encountered Harvey Weinstein, at an awards ceremony in Berlin. He was introduced to her as “the most powerful producer in Hollywood”, and she was also warned that he was “a bully” and that she should be careful around him. Weinstein immediately set about trying to lure the young woman into unsafe situations, inviting her to a private screening of a movie at his home in Connecticut. Aware of the enormous influence that he wielded, she agreed, despite the warnings she had been given. Those warnings had not given her reason to suspect that Weinstein was a sexual threat, but when she arrived in Connecticut he attempted to get her drunk and then, despite her refusal to drink alcohol, led her into a bedroom and offered to give her a massage. Lupita made her excuses and quickly left. 

As she would later say, “I didn’t quite know how to process the massage incident. I reasoned that it had been inappropriate and uncalled-for, but not overtly sexual. I was entering into a business where the intimate is often professional and so the lines are blurred.“ Weinstein was talking about offering her a major role in an HBO series, so the two remained in contact. The next time they met, Weinstein was more direct, and directly propositioned Lupita, telling her that “If I wanted to be an actress, then I had to be willing to do this sort of thing”. Lupita was not willing, and once again left.

Sudden success 

Lupita was struggling to find work elsewhere, and has spoken of how casting agents would tell her that she was “too dark” for television. Fortunately, her audition tape eventually found its way into the hands of the black British director Steve McQueen, at the time seen as one of the most promising new talents in Hollywood, who was casting for his adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir, 12 Years A Slave. McQueen was struggling to find a suitable actress for the main female role, Patsey, when he saw Lupita’s tape. He would later , describe the moment as revelatory: “I just kind of rubbed my eyes in disbelief and needed someone else to confirm what I was seeing.” Lupita, who had previously only appeared in one MTV drama serial, suddenly had a major supporting role in a Hollywood production. Her performance won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2013; she was the first black African actress to be nominated for the award, and the first black African to win any Oscar. Sadly, the film also brought her back into contact with Weinstein, who approached her at a premiere screening of the movie in Toronto. He apologized for his earlier behavior before repeatedly trying to cast her in Weinstein Company productions. Once again, she refused.  

Lupita in Jordan Peele's Us [2019]

The sudden rise to fame, and the anxiety caused by Weinstein’s proximity, led to health problems. She later told The Hollywood Reporter “I was mitigating my panic at all times because extreme failure and extreme success, the body doesn’t know the difference. Either way, you are in distress. I’m proud of how I weathered that particular storm, but it cost me. It cost me physically. I was extremely thin. My body was ravaging itself, and I got fibroids.” After undergoing surgery she was able to resume her career, and as one of the hottest properties in cinema she was inundated with offers of work. She made her Broadway debut in 2015 in future Black Panther co-star Danai Gurira’s acclaimed play Eclipsed, before donning a motion capture suit to take on the role of Maz Kanata in the Star Wars universe.   

Public service

In 2017, the MeToo movement once again brought her encounters with Harvey Weinstein into sharp relief. Weinstein was now the subject of numerous allegations of sexual assault, and Lupita realised that her experiences with him were not unique. She penned a damning account for the New York Times of Weinstein’s behavior towards her, closing by saying: “I did not know that things could change. I did not know that anybody wanted things to change. So my survival plan was to avoid Harvey and men like him at all costs, and I did not know that I had allies in this.” As an Oscar-winning actress, her voice suddenly carried a lot of weight, and her denouncement of Weinstein helped to accelerate the demand for investigation and punishment, both of Weinstein’s crimes and within the wider Hollywood culture. Weinstein was eventually convicted on two charges, including the rape of an unnamed woman in a New York hotel in 2013, and was sentenced to 23 years in prison. 

In 2018, the New York Times and the New Yorker were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their “explosive, impactful journalism that exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators, including allegations against one of Hollywood’s most influential producers.” Lupita’s op-ed is named as one of the 22 contributing articles, making her one of the very few people to have won both an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize. 

Lupita as Nakia in the first Black Panther movie

Given her unique combination of disparate skills, she was perhaps the obvious choice to play the role of Nakia in Black Panther and its sequel, in which she displays all of the poise and guile one would expect from Wakanda’s top spy. Having endured a start to her career that was fraught with anxiety, secrets, and hidden threats from powerful figures, there’s little doubt that Lupita has learned how to convincingly portray espionage the hard way, and her accomplished performances as Nakia provide ample evidence of this, but Lupita is not resting on her laurels. She’s used her influence to help bring justice to victims, and her very presence in the industry is an inspiration to countless other African women seeking to emulate her successes, but she continues to push for greater equality and representation within the entertainment industry and beyond, a True Superhero off-screen, as well as on it.

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