In her new movie, Queen of Katwe, Lupita Nyong’o brings her talent and brilliance to a story from her native East Africa. To celebrate, she takes Vogue—and the most glorious prints of the season—to her family’s village in Kenya.
Lupita Nyong’o walks tall, much taller than her height. Her mother, Dorothy, once said that her family will forever tease her about how she walks: as if she believes she’s six feet tall. (She’s five-five.) The first time I meet her, at a laid-back taverna in Brooklyn, where she lives, I feel that walk. She is cool, straight-backed, circumspect. She doesn’t ooze emotion the way many young Americans do. She orders the green eggs and lamb, and lets the joke speak for itself, not offering a gratuitous laugh. But once we start speaking about her work, she’s all in, as if able to forget the public Lupita for a moment or two, slip inside the details of story and character, and let go.
Around Christmas of 2014, Lupita got an email from the director Mira Nair with the script for Queen of Katwe, which tells how Phiona Mutesi, an uneducated girl from the slums of Uganda, rises to become the chess champion of her country and an international chess master. Nair wanted her to play Phiona’s mother, Harriet. “Five pages in I wrote my manager and agent with the words ‘I must do this film,’ ” says Lupita.
“Lupita employs a powerful intellect in her work and makes very deep, very intricate choices. And she’s just relentless in her pursuit of authenticity and specificity of the character,” says Gurira, who is an actress (The Walking Dead) as well as a playwright. “She is 150 percent every second, doing more and more work offstage, growing in her understanding of that world. It’s a dream for a writer.” It’s what Lupita said she needed “after that long roller-coaster ride that culminated in the Academy Awards.”
For Nyong’o, 2014 was a year that only happens in fairy tales or Hollywood, a year that spun the then-31-year-old actress of 12 Years a Slave into an icon of fashion, beauty, and cool, a star whose combination of grace and mischief and timing on the scene broke a color barrier that never should have existed. In the six months leading up to the Oscars, she swirled through 66 red carpets. She was dubbed People’s Most Beautiful Person and appeared on the cover of multiple magazines. “But it was all not acting,” she says.
She didn’t set out with a mission to tell these African stories, Lupita says. It happened organically.
“Being able to use my platform to expand and diversify the African voice,” she says, searching for the right words, “I feel very passionate about that. It feels intentional, meaningful.”
There’s something about Lupita that also feels intentional, as if she had been groomed, designed even, to be a messenger, to bear with poise the privilege and burden of her newfound fame. Mira Nair has known her for many years almost as a daughter. (Nair’s husband, Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, is an old friend of Lupita’s father from their days in the late sixties as student activists at Makerere University.) Lupita interned for Nair on The Namesake. Then, when Nair was setting up Maisha, a lab for East African filmmakers in Kampala, Lupita joined her as a production coordinator—of course, all the young directors there wanted her in their films even then.
“Her roots are strong, which is why she flies,” says Nair over dinner in New York, where she is rehearsing for the Broadway debut of the musical based on her film Monsoon Wedding. “She knows where she comes from and uses that to see the world. She has seen ups and downs through the family’s journey; that gives her a clear-eyed approach to who she plays and what she stands for.”
Lupita is the second of six children from a prominent Kenyan family. Her mother manages the Africa Cancer Foundation. Her father is a senator, political activist, and former university lecturer. She and her siblings grew up in the public eye, negotiating visibility, privilege, and politics.
A wellspring in the village is named after her great-great-grandfather. On her grandparents’ land stands a small, stately chapel built in memory of her grandfather, the region’s first clergyman, who ministered to the poor and brought Christianity and education to the villagers. After his death, Lupita’s grandmother completed their project to build a dormitory for orphaned or disadvantaged girls from the district so that they could go to school unencumbered by suitors or domestic chores.
We’re at the Acacia, which overlooks Lake Victoria. Lupita notices the hyacinth are back, greening large swaths of the lake. Though the plants are beautiful, the fishermen say they are a sign of the water’s pollution and are causing a scarcity of fish. She sighs. “I have to deafen my ears to that Christian lady,” she says, referring to the talent agent. “She is looking at me as part of the cultural tapestry.” She throws out her arms. “I am living and breathing. That person is not considering what I had for breakfast, how that is sitting in my stomach, and why I didn’t do well with that audition.” She shakes her head. “I can’t think like that.”
There’s a silence. “I cannot run away from who I am and my complexion or the larger society and how they may view that. I realize that with what I shared at the Essence awards.”
It is one of the great speeches on beauty, a landmark that outlasted the night two years ago when Lupita recounted being taunted about her dark skin, and how she bargained with God that she’d stop stealing sugar cubes if she could wake up with lighter skin.
The European sense of beauty affects us all,” she says abruptly. “I came home from college in the early two-thousands and saw ads on TV with a girl who can’t get a job. She uses this product. She gets her skin lighter. She gets the job. The lording of lighter skin is a common thing growing up in Nairobi. Being called ‘black mamba.’ The slow burn of recognizing something else is better than you.”
Until it’s not. Along comes Alek Wek, the model from South Sudan, “dark as night” on all the runways, celebrated in magazines and TV. Lupita could not believe the world was embracing as beautiful a woman “who looked so much like me.”
Lupita Nyong’o has graced the cover of Vogue magazine for the third time, and, of course, she slays. The Oscar-winning actress was photographed by Mario Testino in her hometown of Kenya for the cover story, where she speaks with Vogue about her desire to help other people of color in the industry.