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Lupita Nyong'o is already using her Star Wars star power for good

Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium
Rich Polk/WireImage

Lupita Nyong'o announced Monday that she would be joining the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. But that's not Nyong'o's only big news this week. Before she became another member of a galaxy far far away, Lupita snatched up the film rights to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's most recent novel Americanah.

Adichie had hinted earlier this year that she was working on something with Nyong'o, but nothing was official until May 29 when Adichie announced it at a book signing in the United Kingdom. No release date has been set for Americanah to reach the silver screen, and we couldn't have one for some time.  Books with a huge readership, like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have been produced rapidly after they are acquired, but non-blockbusters like Americanah tend not to have such a quick turnaround.

In this case, waiting might be the strongest move Nyong'o has. Owning the rights to Americanah gives Nyong'o the opportunity to tell Adichie's story to a much bigger, much more diverse audience once she's allowed Star Wars to rocket her to superstardom.

Finding star power

Ultimately, Lupita Nyong'o isn't a big enough star to pull huge crowds yet. Though famous in some circles, she's hardly a household name. She is not Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston, or Julia Roberts. Compared with Jennifer Lawrence, who she beat out for the Academy Award for best supporting actress, Lupita Nyong'o (the blue line) is barely a blip on the Google radar.

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12 Years a Slave placed Nyong'o on the radar of American popular culture, but it didn't make her a superstar. It couldn't have; not enough people saw it.  This chart shows the box office sales for the movies nominated for Best Picture in 2013.

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Against its esteemed competition, 12 Years a Slave fell in the middle of profitable movies, but by a long-shot. Gravity made almost five times as much money as 12 Years a Slave. Despite winning the award for Best Picture and the media cycle that came afterward, 12 Years a Slave was only ranked fifth out of nine nominees, and unlike Her and Nebraska, being nominated for the award made little impact on the amount of people who actually went to see 12 Years a Slave.

To be fair, Nyong'o is on the right track. Her late 2013 blip isn't much smaller than Jennifer Lawrence's Winter's Bone era popularity. And Winter's Bone made even less than 12 Years a Slave, and it took Lawrence's casting in The Hunger Games for her to really break out. Star Wars could play a similar role for Nyong'o.

Why Americanah needs a superstar to succeed

For a novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is fairly famous. Her book Half of a Yellow Sun was adapted into a movie currently under limited release, and Americanah recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2013. Maybe most significant, Adichie's TEDtalk on feminism was sampled on the Beyoncé's newest album. Adichie is, for the moment anyway, in her own small spotlight.

But it's a somewhat elite spotlight; National Book Critics Circle Awards aren't exactly a sign of broad, popular adoration. And Hollywood is generally averse to telling the stories Adichie tells. People of color are underrepresented in almost every area of the film industry, and Hollywood makes very few movies with leading characters who are black, much less with leading characters who are black women.

To some extent, that's the fault of viewers. In a 2011 study, Dr. Anthony J. Weaver found that racial makeup of the cast could influence which movies a person saw. But the results were much more dramatic for stories about love, which Americanah certainly is. White participants in the study showed significantly less interest in seeing movies with mostly black casts than movies with mostly white casts.

Whether or not Lupita Nyong'o will have the star power to overcome those forces won't be known until the film (knock on wood) is produced and released. But Nyong'o's role in Star Wars will drastically increase the size of her fan base, which could—hopefully—expose more people to her movies that tackle issues of race, and sex, and class in America: movies like Americanah.