lupita nyong'o and trevor noah on confronting racism in the entertainment industry
On the morning of the 2016 Oscars broadcast, 'The New York Times' featured the pair in a conversation about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, Broadway, TV, and beyond.
Lupita Nyong'o and Trevor Noah on the set of the Daily Show, image via Instagram.
While many of us were tallying up our Oscar predictions and making plans for viewing parties for the awards shows, today's Sunday issue of The New York Times hit newsstands and doorsteps. Inside, the Sunday Styles section featured a front-page feature entitled "Lupita Nyong'o and Trevor Noah, and Their Meaningful Roles." Lupita Nyong'o, 32 is a Mexican-Kenyan actress who, in 2014, won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 12 Years a Slave. Also 32, Trevor Noah, who is from Johannesburg, South Africa, is the new host on The Daily Show.
The two stars had a wide-ranging conversation over brunch at a restaurant in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood covered a lot of ground, including the #oscarssowhite movement, and what can be done to increase diversity in Hollywood. They were joined by Times journalist Philip Galanes who steered the discussion with carefully put questions.
Here are some of the best excerpts of their conversation:
Philip Galanes: [Regarding] the contretemps at The Daily Show before Jon Stewart left, about the lack of diversity on the writing staff. Have you been working on that?
Trevor Noah: When it comes to diversifying, I had never realized how ingrained people's mentality can be. It's not even conscious. When I was looking for new people to try on the show, the network sent out all their tentacles. And people sent in audition tapes. And 95 percent of them were white and male. I was like: Does nobody else want to be a part of this show? Does nobody else even want a job?
PG: What did you do?
TN: I said, "I want more diversity." And they said, "But this is what we're getting." So I said, "Then I will go out and look for it in the street."
Lupita Nyong'o: However they were reaching out was not reaching into diverse communities.
TN: So I went to all the young comedians I knew — black, Hispanic, female, whatever — and I said, "Are you interested?" And they all said: "Are you crazy? Of course, I'm interested." So I asked, "Why didn't you audition?" And they said, "We didn't know about it." But they told me they'd sent it out to all the agents and managers. And they all went: "Oh, that's where you made the mistake. We can't get agents or managers." We can say we want diversity, but there's this little roadblock that no one tells you about.
LN: The gatekeepers.
PG: The employer may not be racist, but the institution still is.
LN: We're at this interesting moment when prejudice is in the subconscious a lot of the time. Where prejudice occurs before you've even had a conscious thought. The laws have changed, but now the battle is with the mind. And that's much harder to get to.
TN: Especially when people feel attacked. People are always asking me, "Why aren't you angry?" Because I grew up in a world where being an angry black person got you nowhere. It got you shot or arrested. There's a place for anger, but you can get so much further with diplomacy and empathy. You have to feel for the other person, even if you think they're completely wrong. And they think the same about you.
PG: But it seems unfair: being discriminated against and having to point it out gently.
TN: Freedom is hard work.
TN: But you know the irony of #OscarsSoWhite? If you were talking with two white people, they would get to discuss their achievements, their hopes and dreams, maybe a passion project. But we can't not talk about the Oscars, or we get, "Don't you care?" But if we do, we get, "Is that all you talk about?" It's a vicious cycle.
LN: I feel like clapping and singing right now! You said that just right. It cuts down on human experience.
PG: Growing up under apartheid, were you in a big rush to tell the truth?
TN: Not really. We just love making people laugh. It's an African thing: sitting around, talking as much trash as you can, getting people to laugh hard.
PG: But, Trevor, you had an extreme setup: a black mother and a white father who weren't allowed to mix — legally.
TN: My story isn't a pity story. It wasn't a world of pity. We were in our lives.
LN: That's the way you preserve your dignity.
TN: I thought I was lucky because I knew who my dad was. I knew kids who didn't know their dad. True, I didn't have access to him, but I knew how he felt. My mom was like: "Jesus didn't have his dad, either. You have a stepdad." People always make it seem like there's one experience that's the gold standard to aim for. I didn't grow up that way.
LN: Neither did I. I think it came from watching TV from around the world. I knew there was my way and all the other ways.
TN: Did you ever see kids running upstairs in sitcoms and wonder what that was like?
LN: What I loved was when they walked in the front door and took off their coats. I loved those coats.
TN: Coats and stairs. I couldn't believe a second floor was a real thing.
TN: One of the best things I ever learned was boxing. My trainer kept drilling into me: "Understand that I'm going to hit you in the face. You can't get angry about it because then you'll stop thinking rationally. I'm not trying to hurt you; I'm trying to win." It's a fantastic mind game. You have to think.
LN: You can't let your emotions get the better of you. And if you're on a winning streak, the last thing you want to do is pat yourself on the back.
TN: Not too happy, not too sad.
PG: But you're both describing a world where you control your emotions. How about when your feelings get hurt or you feel jealous?
TN: Then you work harder.
Text Laura Vogel
Image via Instagram