What Will the Future Hold for Refreshingly Mature It Girl Lupita Nyong’o?

A peek into Lupita Nyong’o’s Instagram feed is a wild look into the jet-setting life of the current It Girl: Paris with Rihanna, posing like Audrey Hepburn circa Roman Holiday with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar on the steps of the Dolby Theatre, hobnobbing with a who’s who of movie stars, and showing off a killer nail game, day by day. Lupita Nyong’o is having a moment, and it’s great. She’s the best fashion muse to come along in quite some time, the rare actress who’s able to make couture work for her. In the case of most actresses, the beautiful dress is wearing them; not so with Lupita. She was heartbreaking and wonderful in 12 Years a Slave. And, most impressively, she’s no ingenue. As Ann Friedman writes at The Cut, “The woman who’s just been declared the freshest young thing in Hollywood is just a few years away from the age at which The Atlantic typically suggests a woman start worrying about her barren uterus.”

What Friedman notes, correctly, is that it’s the rare It Girl who emerges, fully formed, in her 30s. And in the annals of film history, actresses who emerge in their 30 are just as rare, but it’s also rarified company: Meryl Streep and Jessica Chastain immediately come to mind. Nyong’o’s cohort of movie stars, from Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway, have all been working in the business for 15-plus years. The broken economics of Hollywood have led to a dearth of stars emerging as adults; rather, child actors have been transitioning to lead roles with ease. (Also relevant: The New York Times Magazine on how Hollywood can’t break action stars these days.)

But the question remains: will Hollywood know what to do with Nyong’o? It’s painfully clear that it doesn’t know what to do with black women who were recent frontrunners, like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (Quvenzhané Wallis, on the other hand, will be in this winter’s Annie remake). Nyong’o is in a slightly different position than these other women, as the first young black actress to come along in a while — save Kerry Washington, who had a slew of second-banana roles in film before breaking barriers on Scandal — who could, possibly, be seen as more of a leading lady than a character actress. She even bested the ingenue of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence (although Lawrence is weirdly ageless, always being cast in older roles, like Scarlett Johansson in her prime, even as she plays a teenager in The Hunger Games). In a perfect world, Nyong’o would be playing interesting roles in great movies. She would make a great lead in a romantic comedy, as this BuzzFeed roundtable points out.

Yet Hollywood is toxic and dismissive about the lives of women, especially young black women. Additionally, the media doesn’t know how to talk about young black women. As the writers at BuzzFeed report, the language and tone taken towards Nyong’o’s rise, particularly the racially coded compliments about her “exotic” looks and her “eloquence,” create a creepy and fetishized vibe. Coded racism is still racism, and it’s one step back from the potential of progress.

Most tellingly, Nyong’o — who did appear in last month’s Non-Stop — doesn’t have any films on deck. Perhaps the long march of this Oscar campaign did its work, and got her name on the A-list shortlist with people making the films that matter (Alfonso Cuaron? David O. Russell? More work with Steve McQueen?). That could make for an excellent future.

But I suspect Nyong’o’s path may be different. As Friedman pointed out, she is an It Girl at 31. And Nyong’o being 31 years old places her squarely in the generation between Gen X and full-fledged millennial; she can remember the time before the internet, and she’s dealt with, for the past ten years, a precipitous shift in which jobs are available and what job security even means. It hasn’t led to a lot of wunderkinds (and it was quite eye-opening to realize that most wunderkinds have something driving their success, from privilege to a crazy work ethic), but it has made this generation — a small cohort — more wily and tough than those found in the average millennial trend piece.

These real-world economics also explain why many of the “youth” today, particularly in creative fields, are DIY to the core, taking to Kickstarter to fund their work, or legitimately becoming writers slash directors slash musicians slash whatever. What use is the cloistered expert in the age of the Internet? And it would be no surprise to see Nyong’o taking this torch and running with it. She’s directed music videos and a documentary called In My Genes, a work on the lives of albino Kenyans. If she’s going to maintain a presence in Hollywood, she may need to do it herself. It’ll be fascinating to watch what happens, and I’m rooting for her, all the way.