Lupita Nyong’o has only been working in Hollywood since 2013, and despite being highly in-demand and seemingly everywhere, she quite frankly only has a handful of roles to her name. But Nyong’o has consistently distinguished herself in each of them, with unique, unforgettable performances that improved and enhanced the films in which she’s appeared. As she celebrates her 36th birthday on March 1, Moviefone takes a look at just a handful of the characters - and the incredible work behind them.
'12 Years a Slave' (2013)
Nyong’o’s breakthrough role in Steve McQueen’s historical drama won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, thanks to a shockingly vulnerable performance as Patsey, a “favored” slave suffering under the cruel hand of plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Patsey is at once tender and fearless, fragile and resilient in the face of devastatingly inhuman treatment, and Nyong’o gives her a life - and frightful relatability - that elevates the film’s already tremendous power.
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' (2015)
Although she is transformed into an otherworldly creature through the magic of performance capture, Nyongo’s turn as Maz Kanata harkens back to the golden age of practical effects, particularly for the “Star Wars” franchise, as she consults with Han Solo, helps shepherd BB-8 (and the information within the droid) to the Rebel Alliance, and starts Rey on her long journey towards becoming a Jedi Knight.
The Jungle Book'
As the second of two consecutive performances in which Lupita is heard but not seen on screen, she provides the voice of Raksha, the tenacious but compassionate wolf who takes young Mowgli and raises him as one of her children in Jon Favreau’s vivid adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s iconic book. Her role in the film isn’t huge, but it tells you everything that you need to know about the community, and culture, in which Mowgli grows up, leading him towards the empathetic love of the jungle that makes him such a curio to man and animal alike.
'Queen of Katwe'
Mira Nair directed this underappreciated drama based on the true story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, whose mother, Nakke Harriet, is played by Nyong’o. Though the film focuses on the events of Mutesi’s unexpected, metoric rise in the Chess Olympiad, Lupita provides a voice of calm, loving support -- and unwavering pragmatism -- as her character’s young daughter discovers, and develops, talents that no one knew existed.
By now, Ryan Coogler’s story about a superhero from the fictional African country of Wakanda has become a part not just of box office glory but cinema history and the pop culture fabric. But Nyong’o’s performance as Nakia, King T’Challa’s most trusted confidante and sometime lover, gives the film its emotional center even as she pushes its political edges. In a film about one’s responsibility to look out for one’s brother, she offers a powerful reminder that sometimes that point can best be made by a sister.