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How Lupita Nyong’o and Us just made history for black women everywhere

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The horror film had the best opening weekend for a movie led by a woman of colour. Let’s use that statistic to make real change.

We need to talk about Lupita Nyong’o.

You know: Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o, acting superstar Lupita Nyong’o, style icon Lupita Nyong’o, arse-kicking superhero Lupita Nyong’o, intergalactic space prophet in Star Wars Lupita Nyong’o. But until last week and Jordan Peele’s horror movie Us, Lupita Nyong’o had never starred in a movie in which she was the lead of that film. And now she has, and that movie just broke all the box office records for movies starring black women.

Courtesy of its breathtaking $71 million opening weekend (£53 million), Us has broken a bunch of box office records. It had the best opening weekend for an original horror movie and the best opening weekend for an original R-rated movie. But Us also broke the record for the biggest opening weekend for a movie led by a black woman. In history.

Lupita Nyong'o, Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Jordan Peele's Us. Image: Universal Pictures

Lupita Nyong’o in Us

Shadow and Act crunched the numbers on this, noting that for movies to specifically rank here they must name a black actress as the movie’s top-billed star in their credits. Nyong’o is Us’ star and it is her name that appears first in the titles, before her co-stars Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss. So that $71 million opening weekend is squarely on her shoulders.

The previous biggest opening weekends by movies led by black actresses are 2004’s Alien vs Predator starring Sanaa Lathan ($38 million), A Wrinkle in Time with Oprah ($33 million), Girls Trip with Regina Hall ($31 million) and Janet Jackson’s Why Did I Get Married Too ($29 million).

It is important to note that director Peele wrote the part of Adelaide expressly for Nyong’o, and the two collaborated closely on the script and on developing her dual roles of Adelaide and Red, her tethered inner-self, together. He did this, according to Shadow and Act, because he realised that Nyong’o hadn’t had a lead role in a movie, despite being the phenomenal talent that she is. 

Jordan Peele and Lupita Nyong’o

Jordan Peele and Lupita Nyong’o

“She walked into the room and you just felt the air suck out of it,” Peele told the New York Times. The scene in which Nyong’o appears for the first time as Red, out for vengeance and Adelaide’s blood, was one of the most powerful moments on the film set. “The first time she did that scene was magic,” Peele said. “I think we shot it like 10 times – just because we could – and it was always gold.”

The critical acclaim that Nyong’o has received for Us is well-deserved: many fans are already predicting an Oscar nomination for the actress. Here’s hoping that it will translate into more leading roles for her. She is already slated to star in the gender-flipped reboot of John Woo’s classic assassin film The Killer and Jessica Chastain’s all-female spy ensemble 355 under her belt. What’s next? Will she finally get to make the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah that she has been talking about for years?

This week, a viral Twitter thread has summed up how hard it is for women of colour to make headway in the film industry, even after they have Oscar success. The thread pointed to both Nyong’o and Jennifer Hudson, whose first post-Oscar win role was as Carrie Bradshaw’s assistant in the Sex and the City movie. “That is NO shade to J Hud,” the Twitter thread read, “but… the Oscars mean something TOTALLY diff for Black Women.”

“Complex stories about and starring Black Women are not common. And filmmakers who WANT to tell those stories have a hard time,” the thread continued. “I need more Black women, (dark skinned, light skinned, brown skinned, trans) women to be getting these opportunities. I need more non-white passing WOC to be getting these opportunities.”

When it comes to enacting change, money is the only language that Hollywood speaks. It’s the Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians rule: if you can prove that you can make money, then your value skyrockets and you are finally given the opportunities that can change the system.

The past year has seen the viability of diverse stories reinforced at the box office over and over again. Movies from diverse filmmakers starring diverse actors and actresses make money. A lot of it. Quite a whole lot of it, actually. Movies in which Lupita Nyong’o is the star make a lot of money. (A lot of money.)

Money talks. Here’s hoping that it opens a conversation that gives both Nyong’o all the starring roles that she deserves but also ushers in a new era of movies about and led by black women. 

Images: Universal, Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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