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She became the first Kenyan and first Mexican actress to win an Academy Award.

Nyong'o started her career working as part of the production crew for several films, including Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener (2005), Mira Nair's The Namesake (2006) and Salvatore Stabile's Where God Left His Shoes (2007).

Nyong'o is involved in the organization Mother Health International, which is dedicated to providing relief to women and children in Uganda by creating locally engaged birthing centers.

She said she’d never thought much about birthing practices until her sister introduced her to MHI executive director Rachel Zaslow.

On February 27, 2014, at the Essence Black Women In Hollywood luncheon in Beverly Hills, she gave a speech on the beauty of black women and talked about the insecurities she had as a teenager.

She said her views changed when she saw South Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek become successful.

On October 19, 2014, Nyong'o sent a letter to Richmond Mayor Dwight C.

"She imbues what could have been a stock mother figure with such inner fire that Harriet feels worthy of a movie all her own." Nyong'o reprised her role as space pirate Maz Kanata in Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).In June 2015, Nyong'o returned to Kenya and announced that she will advocate globally for elephants with the international conservation organization Wild Aid, as well as promote women's issues, acting and the arts in Kenya.Wild Aid announced Nyong'o as their Global Elephant Ambassador.Ian Freer of Empire wrote that she "gives one of the most committed big-screen debuts imaginable," and critic Peter Travers added that she "is a spectacular young actress who imbues Patsey with grit and radiant grace".Nyong'o was nominated for several awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and two Screen Actors Guild Awards including Best Supporting Actress, which she won.

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The film, which met with wide critical acclaim, tells the historical account of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African American man of upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Washington, DC in 1841.