Separate Trajectories In early 2014, Lupita Nyong’o was the toast of Hollywood. A strikingly beautiful ingenue and ascendant darling of the fashion world, whose performance in 12 Years a Slave was winning her the kinds of raves few could ever dream of. For an actress in her very first feature film, it was the kind of picture-perfect, frantically-photographed arrival only seen in fairytales; the girl who came out of nowhere to attend the ball. At the same time, just across town, another young ingenue from a far away land was catching the eye of the public at large. Her name was Margot Robbie, and her kinky, flashy supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street garnered kudos and attention. At the time, Nyongo’s star shined much brighter, with awards, covers and contracts tossed her way like PETA-brand paint on a fashionista. But over the course of the following year, both actresses have rode very different trajectories. And the age-old tale of Hollywood’s treatment of young black females remains ever clear.
It may seem at first odd to compare both actresses. But both Nyong’o and Robbie share very similar Hollywood backgrounds, arriving as foreign talent and hitting the career jackpot as love interests to male leads in critically-acclaimed masterpieces, both walking the red carpets of the same awards season, both identified as uber-talented up-and-comers at the very same time. Both given plum spots on the cover of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue in 2014.
But it was Nyong’o who first seemed to burst off the screen and grab the most press and industry attention, in spite of a darker, saddening undercurrent to her potential prospects once the initial spotlight inevitably dimmed. Her 12 Years co-star Alfre Woodard spoke of her admiration of Nyongo’s talent, but confided during a press conference for the film that she was unsure whether the kinds of opportunities afforded to Nyongo’s white contemporaries would be headed her way. “This is a great launch for her,” she said, “she’s not only very gifted as an actor but she’s very intelligent as a woman and she’s very beautiful… however, she’s African.” She continued, “If she were Caucasian, we know she’d be set. She would be working until she didn’t want to work anymore and offered scripts for different kinds of roles to allow her to keep unfolding as an artist.” For an actress of a darker complexion, unlike light-skinned (for a time) A-listers like Halle Berry, the outcome was an unknown. “We’ve been talking about [a breakthrough] for years, but we’ll be face to face with it and unable to deny it when she’s as talented, as beautiful and as dark brown as she is. So we’ll see.”
A year after Nyong’o won the Oscar, her resume remains light. For the actress who came of prominence in a similarly-sized role in a similarly acclaimed film within the exact same Oscar season, who happens to be blessed with the kind of blonde, blue-eyed, all-American looks studio execs traditionally go gaga over, she’s got a big new movie opening this week. It’s called Focus, her name and face are plastered all over the movie posters, and her co-star is Will Smith. While one star is seemingly annointed, the other seems to have wilted. Let’s track where Nyong’o and Robbie collided and peaked, and where they stand in the Hollywood machine as of now.
August 2012 Starts shooting the role of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.
August 2012 Starts shooting the role of Naomi Lapaglia in The Wolf of Wall Street.
November 2012 Joins the cast of the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, playing the small supporting role of Gwen, a flight attendant.
June 2013 Joins the supporting cast of the Michelle Williams war drama Suite francaise.
July 2013 Books the female lead in the Warner Bros. thriller Focus alongside Will Smith, beating out actresses including Michelle Williams and Rose Byrne.
September 2013 12 Years a Slave hits the festival circuit, earning universal acclaim. Goes on to receive nine Oscar nods, including Best Supporting Actress.
December 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street opens to raves, goes onto receive five Oscar nods, but none for Robbie herself.
January 2014 Books the lead in the indie apocalypse drama Z for Zachariah alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine.
February 2014 Announced as playing Jane to Alexander Skarsgard’s Tarzan in the upcoming reboot of the classic tale.
March 2014 Wins the Best Supporting Actress award for 12 Years a Slave.
March 2014 Is photographed meeting with JJ Abrams to discuss a potential role in Star Wars: Episode VII.
March 2014 Is linked to a supporting role in the Renee Zellweger courtroom drama The Whole Truth. The role is eventually taken by another black actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
March 2014 Despite auditioning for Joe Wright’s ‘colour-blind’/’multi-racial’ Peter Pan reboot, the very white Rooney Mara is cast as Tiger Lily.
April 2014 Cast in a voiceover role in Jon Favreau’s live-action/CGI hybrid adaptation of The Jungle Book.
May 2014 Is courted for a supporting role as a social worker in the Jake Gyllenhaal drama Southpaw. Rachel McAdams is cast as the female lead, the wife of Gyllenhaal’s character. A deal doesn’t come to fruition, and the role is filled by another black actress, Naomie Harris.
June 2014 Announced as a late addition to the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Details of her character are unknown, and as of February 2015 she remains absent from trailers and promotional materials. Rumours abound that her character is motion-capture only, and that she doesn’t physically appear on-screen.
June 2014 Announced to headline and produce an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Nigerian love story Americanah. No director or screenwriter is attached.
October 2014 Books a supporting role in the Tina Fey drama The Taliban Shuffle, based on the acclaimed memoir by journalist Kim Barker.
December 2014 Announced as the first actress to bring iconic comic book character Harley Quinn to the big screen in Suicide Squad.
December 2014 Movement finally occurs on Americanah, with David Oyelowo coming on board as her co-star, but a screenwriter and director are still to be found.
January 2015 Announced to star as mother to a Ugandan chess prodigy in the Disney drama Queen of Katwe alongside David Oyelowo. Mira Nair will direct.
January 2015 Z for Zachariah screens at Sundance to rave reviews, particularly for her performance.
February 2015 Focus hits cinemas, to a predicted $25 million opening weekend. Margot Robbie has arrived.
Margot Robbie is a talented wunderkind with bombshell looks and the world at her feet. If critics are to be believed, her work in Focus and Z for Zachariah is career-defining and brilliant. As Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote in January, she has “become a movie star”, delivering performances that are “fully alert and alive.” But it is a testament to Hollywood’s archaic values that she is being given opportunity after opportunity to prove her gifts at the expense of a black actress heralded as the next big thing just one year ago. An actress whose post-Oscar roles, be it mother to a Ugandan child or a jungle wolf, are all prefaced with one uniting characteristic: black. In Hollywood terms, a character needs to be explicitly black or at least ‘exotic’ on paper for the offer to go out to an actress of colour. And when someone as acclaimed, gifted and heavily-promoted as Lupita Nyong’o finds even herself almost immediately dumped in the wasteland of black female movie stars who almost were (population Sanaa Lathan, Gabrielle Union, Vivica Fox, and many, many more), it’s a testament to the old adage that sometimes things just never seem to change.