I recently held forward at length about the frustrating representations of women and/or people of colors other than pasty in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One of my criticisms discussed Lupita Nyong’o’s character, the mocapped Maz Kanata. I interpreted it as a literal erasure of a Mexican-Kenyan woman and thus a very problematic maneuver with imperialist, colonialist overtones.
A December 13th, 2015, Buzzfeed interview with Nyong’o complicates my interpretation. Nyong’o explains her choice of the mocapped Force Awakens role as a calculated assertion of agency in a racially charged environment. Having recently won an Oscar for her performance as the enslaved [and much abused] woman Patsy in 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o made the following remark:
“12 Years a Slave was a film that was so much about my body, and Star Wars is not at all. There was a liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question,” Nyong’o told BuzzFeed News. “The acting challenge I was looking for was completely different, a complete departure from 12 Years a Slave.”
Let’s break her comment down a bit. 12 Years a Slave film centralizes the brutal violence to which black bodies are subjected in the form of kidnapping, rape, assault, and other kinds of torture. Thus Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey contains a crapload of racialized and sexualized suffering that the character experiences precisely because she is poor, black, and female. Patsey’s characterization thus becomes hyperfocused on her body, especially when she is hurt and violated. Nyong’o’s comment that it’s freeing to play a character like Maz Kanata where “my body was not the thing in question” implies that her body was “the thing in question” in 12 Years a Slave. Notice how she talks about her body as a “thing,” rather than part of herself. This leads me to suspect that she found her performance as Patsey objectifying to some degree, thus exhausting and disturbing. I think “acting challenge” underestimates the significant physical and emotional difficulties Nyong’o experienced in 12 Years a Slave.
Nyong’o’s description of the role of Maz as a “liberation” suggests that she found it a respite from the role of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. Patsey is an enslaved woman who experiences physical, mental, and emotional abuse, all with the ultimate effect of making her blackness, femaleness, and enslavement the most salient things about her. In contrast, Maz Kanata is neither black, nor enslaved, nor a victim of onscreen abuse. As an old, wise character and owner of a popular intergalactic watering hole, she has a certain agency and independence denied to Patsey. Nyong’o acknowledges an “acting challenge” in doing a mocap performance for the first time, but I’d hazard a guess that, absent the history of degradation and mistreatment weighing down the role of Patsey, the role of Maz was less emotionally and physically taxing.
Nyong’o obviously does not see her portrayal of Maz Kanata as a racist effacement of a woman of color. In fact, she sees it as an escape from and alternative to the race-obsessed, body-obsessed, and emotionally exhausting work she did for the role of Patsey. So who am I, a white person, to insist that there’s racism and sexism at play here?
Well, there is. Nyong’o, as a woman of color, experiences a double bind created explicitly by the confluence of racism, sexism, classism, etc., in the movie industry. She can play a role like that of Patsey, which foregrounds her blackness, femaleness, and enslavement, and win awards, but suffer emotional and physical aftershocks. When she seeks to avoid physical and mental stress by playing a role like that of Maz Kanata, which is much less strongly determined by race, sex, and even physicality, then people go, “What the hell? Black erasure!” While Patsey and Maz do not represent all the roles available to Nyong’o, they do represent the ways in which racism, sexism, and classism limit her options. Cultural expectations of women of color reward highly sexualized, racialized, classed roles like that of Patsey and look down on less sexualized, racialized, classed roles like that of Maz. The variety of roles available to women of color may be slightly larger than it was 75 years ago, but the racism, sexism, and classism of the movie industry still literally reward them for playing poor, abused, enslaved victims of violence.