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Out of Africa for real

‘International’ has become shorthand for ‘Chinese’ — but there’s a wide world out there

The world is getting smaller.

We can take a walk in the shoes of black Italians, Dutch, French and English people thanks to the work of documentary filmmaker Cecile Emeke. A South African comic is hosting The Daily Show, one of the most valuable cultural counterweights to the American political system and the media who cover it. And one of the biggest black movie stars of our generation is a Mexican-born, Kenyan woman who was educated at Hampshire College and Yale School of Drama.

Recent news that Lupita Nyong’o is in negotiations to appear in Marvel’s Black Panther movie as the love interest of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, who comes from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, has further ignited rabid enthusiasm for the film. Frenzy was already high after T’Challa made his Marvel debut in Captain America: Civil War. But news of Nyong’o’s casting, along with Michael B. Jordan’s, sent things overboard. #BlackPantherSoLit, indeed.

The announcement of Nyong’o’s involvement also revealed something about the choices the actress is making in her career. When she shows herself on screen — unlike recent turns in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jungle Book — she’s making conscious decisions to play not just black women, but African women.

When will film distribution rise to meet the potential growth in Africa? And can the industry build road quickly enough to cover the path Nyong’o is forging?

In addition to her yet to be confirmed role in Black Panther, Nyong’o is playing the mother of Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi in the forthcoming film Queen of Katwe. She turned down film roles to commit to Broadway’s Eclipsed, written by Zimbabwean-American actress Danai Gurira. Eclipsed focuses on the lives of five women who are held captive as sex slaves for a Liberian general. These decisions make all the sense in the world, right? Why wouldn’t Nyong’o want to play characters and tell stories that sing to her?

And yet, it’s not immediately obvious to everyone. Nyong’o felt moved to pen an essay for Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny Letter, after a journalist asked why a “big star” such as herself would opt for a “small play.”

“This question felt quite silly,” Nyong’o wrote. “I mean, I’m an actress; why wouldn’t I want to be in an incredible, gorgeous, meaty piece about the complicated choices of women during wartime? But then it went deeper than that. To me it felt like a question about our value system in this culture, the ways we define success for ourselves as well as others.” The fact that one of the biggest movie stars in the world wants to play African women has the potential to make many inroads when it comes to how we think of the global film market, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s clear that Nyong’o’s star shines just as brightly in Africa as it does throughout the rest of the world — Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has called her the “pride of Africa.”

If Nyong’o is so passionate about playing these women, it’s highly likely that there are millions who are just as passionate to see themselves reflected in her, in Gurira, in actress Uzo Aduba, in so many other rising talents with African heritage. The big questions are, when will international film distribution rise to meet potential growth in Africa and can the industry build road quickly enough to cover the path Nyong’o is forging? And how much power does Nyong’o have to steer it by choosing, early in her career, to hold up an enormous mirror to a vast population that’s still underserved and largely ignored?

How much consideration is given to broadening the definition of the “international” market to include not just South Africa, but also Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt?

A report on trade barriers the Motion Picture Association of America filed with the Trade Policy Staff Committee of the U.S. Trade Representative last fall reveals just how far there is to go. The document is a comprehensive rundown of trade barriers in markets across the globe “where [the MPAA] and its member companies are most actively engaged.”

South Africa is the only country on the continent to even make the report, and the focus there is mostly on Internet, Blu-ray and DVD piracy. The attention it gets is a mere pittance compared to Asia and Europe. Clearly there’s an appetite for Western film, even if it’s not necessarily being well-served through legitimate means of consumption. When we talk and think about serving the international market and as big studio tentpoles increasingly rely on it to be profitable, how much consideration is given to broadening the definition of that market to include Africa, and not just South Africa, but also Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Morocco, Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Egypt?

So often these days, the international film market is conflated with China, where distributors see potential for enormous growth. Over at The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg has an explanation of the intricacies of the U.S.-Chinese film market. Even though there’s a tiny window for American film in China — just 34 per year — the country looms so large that its geopolitical concerns have the power to influence casting decisions at Marvel. At least, that’s how the decision to cast Tilda Swinton, as The Ancient One in Dr. Strange, rather than preserve the character’s original Tibetan ethnicity, was explained. Can you imagine a similar scrambling over 34 slots for American films in Africa?

Nyong’o is making conscious decisions to play not just black women, but African women.

“I grew up in a country and in a world that consumed a lot of Western popular culture, and so I was starved for stories about people like me,” Nyong’o said in an interview with The New York Times, discussing her decision to do Eclipsed. “This seemed like a prime opportunity to do a story about Africans that also really allowed me to stretch myself, to experience totally different circumstances from the ones I grew up in.”

Nyong’o is well on her way to helping craft a cinematic landscape that’s a little more reflective of the small world in which we live. Will it play in Peoria, Illinois? is now accompanied by: Will it play in Beijing, China? Here’s to hoping, soon enough, it will be just as normal to ask: Will it play in Abuja, Nigeria?

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.