Africa's first big Hollywood year: Are multiple Oscars in the offing?

Three Oscar bids from the African diaspora is unprecedented: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave," and Barkhad Abdi, for "Captain Phillips."

Francois Duhamel, Fox Searchlight Pictures/AP
This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Lupita Nyong’o in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." Nyong'o was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, for her role in the film. The 86th Academy Awards will be held on March 2.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Africa on the Blog venue. The views expressed are the author's own. 

This year, Africans and members of the African diaspora across the globe have more of a reason to follow Hollywood film awards than any other year.

In the past, when Africans watched the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards or the Academy Awards – they hardly saw African faces, much less African nominees.

Africa itself was often represented by non-Africans. It seemed the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood runway was not  a space for Africans. In an industry where there are already limited roles for  minorities, African immigrants, children of African immigrants and Africans faced big challenges in finding roles that highlighted their talent.

In recent years, advances in the African  film industry have been noted. Africa now has large film industries such as Nollywood, many awards, and being an actor or actress is a more viable career choice then in the past. Now,  Africa is also making its mark on Hollywood.

Africa has its own film industry awards and should not be seeking validation from the global North on its top talent. The African Movie Academy Awards have made a large and lasting impact on the continent. They are in their 10th year. Yet Hollywood is a tough and competitive space for any foreigners, much less Africans, to gain visibility. So it is important when Africans in the diaspora make headway in the American movie industry.

And therefore the presence of Africa and the African diaspora at the Golden Globe Awards show on Sunday, is to be celebrated.

Africa was represented by films set on the continent and by actors and actresses directly connected to the continent.

And it is starting to be the year for Africa in Hollywood.

Africa at the Golden Globe Awards:

Take the Golden Globes. This year marked a remarkable Golden Globe moment for Africa. For the first time, there was a noticeable number of African actors and actresses at the awards.

While in the past Africans such as Sophie Okonedo (Nigeria), Djimon Hounsou (Benin), Gabourey Sidibe (Senegal), have been nominated -- Charlize Theron (South Africa) has been the sole winner from Africa. 

This year however an African and first generation African diaspora presence was clear. Among those nominated: Chiwetel Efiojor, Lupita N’yongo, Idris Elba, and Barkhad Abdi.

Let's look at them briefly: 

Chiwetel Efiojor: Mr. Efiojor was born to Nigerian parents in England. His father was a doctor and his mother a pharmacist. His sister, Zain Asher, also has a career in front of the camera where she works as a CNN financial news correspondent. Efiojor is a five-time Golden Globe nominee who began his career at Dulwich College and subsequently joined the National Youth Theater. Efiojor should be familiar to many Africans. He has starred in quality films such as Amistad (1997), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), and Children of Men (2006).

This year he was nominated for best actor in the Globes and for the Oscar, for "12 Years a Slave." He is also up for best performance by an actor for the television series "Dancing on the Edge." 

Idris Elba: Mr. Elba's father is from Sierra Leone and his mother is Ghanaian. They resided in England. His father worked in the factories and his mother worked in administration. Elba started his career working as a disc jockey until he branched off to own his own DJ company. His first acting role was in the TV series Absolutely Fabulous. Fans will recognize Elba from his role in movies such as Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and television shows like The Wire and Luther.

This year he got nominated as best actor for the Globes for his role playing Nelson Mandela in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." He is also up for best performance for his role in the TV series Luther.

Lupita N’yongo: Ms. N’yongo was born to Kenyan parents in Mexico. She is the daughter of Kenyan politician Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o and Dorothey Nyong’o. Her aunt, Isis N’yongo, is a leader in the tech industry and regularly appears on the Forbes list of Africa's most powerful women. She is a newcomer to the film industry and only recently graduated from Yale. She has worked on the production team in several Hollywood films. East Africans may recognize her from her role in the Kenyan TV series, Shuga.

She got nominated for the Globes and for an Oscar for her supporting role in "12 Years a Slave."

Barkhad Abdi: Mr. Abdi was born in Somalia to Somali parents. He grew up in Somalia, Yemen and later moved to Minnesota. He attended Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Abdi had no formal acting experience before starring in Captain Phillips alongside Tom Hanks. Abdi got nominated for the Globes and for an Oscar for his role in that film.

Its an Honor Just Being Nominated…

Although none of this years African nominees won an individual Golden Globe, the old cliche ‘its an honor just being nominated’ holds true.

These actors and actresses can now add ‘Golden Globe nominee’ to their resume, which in itself is an accolade in a competitive industry. These celebrities have proves that they are amongst the best in the world.  The movie 12 Years a Slave (2013) in which both Efiojor and N’yongo starred, did win a Globe in the category of “Best Motion Picture – Drama”. Although its setting was not on the continent, it bears  a torch for Africa by telling the story of Africans. The fate of enslaved Africans in America and their experiences adjusting to their new world under deplorable conditions, is the story of Africa and Africans. The movie itself, was directed by Steve McQueen, who was born in England to parents from the Caribbean island of Grenada (where large numbers of  enslaved Africans were brought).

Also representing Africa was the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) which was about one of the most famous African leaders in our time, former South African president, Nelson Mandela was nominated in two categories for the song “Ordinary Love”:

  • Best Original Song (nominee – U2)
  • Best original Score (nominee – Alex Heffes)

The Group U2, which is led by African aid advocate Bono, won in its category as well.

Africa at the Screen Actors Guild Award

All of the actors we mention above are also nominated for the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG) scheduled for Jan. 18.

Joining this list of nominees are Adepero Oduye, born in the US to Nigerian parents, and who graduated pre-med from Cornell University, and was nominated in the category of "cast" in 12 Years a Slave. Also, David Oyelow is nominated for his "cast" role in Lee Daniels, "The Butler." Mr. Oyelow was born in England to Nigerian parents, and attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. 

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