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‘We never say ‘white’ films don’t work…’

Oscar-winning actress, author, director and producer Lupita Nyong’o took to Lumière stage yesterday to talk about flipping the script on Hollywood, finding new ways to build communities and enlighten brands and how she succeeded in winning our hearts and minds.

“The success of Black Panther was hailed as a validation that ‘black films’ can work,” she told Nicola Mendelsohn, Meta’s vice-president of global business group. “But really, when you look at the history of Hollywood, Coming To America was the third-highest grossing film in 1988 and Sidney Poitier’s films were hugely successful in the 1960s. So how many times does it have to be conclusively proved that ‘black’ films have an audience?”

Lupita Nyong’o on the Cannes stage in all pink suit and pink glasses
Lupita Nyong’o: “acknowledging our shared humanity”

Despite that slightly world-weary comment, even Nyong’o was shocked by the fact that Black Panther grossed $1bn in a mere 26 days. “We had no idea it was going to have such an effect,” she said. “People were dressing up and taking drums with them to the cinema to celebrate African culture. When I went to Korea to do a series of interviews to promote the film, the journalists were turning up in traditional Korean clothes. We were all shocked that what the film really did was to empower the idea of indigenous cultures all over the world. That’s an amazing thing.”

Nyong’o also gently mocked Hollywood attitudes: “I call it motivated reasoning, which is the ability of all human beings to make things fit preconceived ideas. So America has never acknowledged its original sin — which of course is slavery — and that narrative affects Hollywood’s attitude to ‘black’ films.

We never say ‘white’ films don’t work, even though many of them don’t. What this all boils down to is the need for us all to acknowledge our shared humanity.”

Nyong’o also admitted to having had a hard time enjoying her early success. “After 12 Years A Slave, so many doors opened for me and it was disorientating for a while. People really don’t have much sympathy for someone having major success. But once I learnt to give myself permission to fail, it got much better.”


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