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One Name, Two Very Different Hollywood Eras

March 16, 2024 namerology No Comments

One Name, Two Very Different Hollywood Eras

March 16, 2024 Namerology No Comments
Robert Forster as Nakia 1974, Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia 2018
Robert Forster in 1974, Lupita Nyong’o in 2018

Black Panther was a dynamo. The superhero epic was the top-grossing film of 2018 and a landmark of Black cinema that pervaded our culture. But baby names didn’t get the memo. Parents didn’t name children after the heroes of Wakanda.

Take Nakia, an appealing, high-profile female character played by Lupita Nyong’o. The simple, stylish name seemed like a natural to become popular in the movie’s wake, yet it barely made a ripple. Why not?

It’s a classic story of names before fame. Even the most glittering celebrity can’t launch a name unless it has the right style, one that connects with current fashion and points it in a fresh direction. Freshness, it turns out, was Nakia’s downfall. The name already made its Hollywood debut a generation earlier.

Nakia, Then

The ABC TV police drama Nakia premiered on September 21, 1974. Its male title character, Nakia Parker, was a full-blooded Navajo deputy sheriff in New Mexico. He mixed tribal customs and wisdom with modern policing methods, and often investigated crimes on horseback.

The series did not catch on, running for only 13 episodes. The name Nakia, though, was another story. Just three months on the air were enough to make Nakia the #302 overall name for American boys in 1974, and #226 for girls.

Historical popularity char showing huge spike in girls and boys named Nakia in the mid-1970s

A huge proportion of those namesakes were African-American. Nakia hit during the ‘70s Afrocentric name boom, a trend that was about sound as well as linguistic origin. The name’s rhythm—nah-KEE-ə—was just what parents were looking for. It echoed rising African names like Aliya, Baraka, Nia and Malaika, and fit with new American-born hits like Tamika and Lakisha.

By the time Black Panther hit the screen, that fashion wave was 40 years past its peak. Nakia sounded a little too much like a mom name.

Behind the Screen

Comparing the two Hollywood Nakias, it’s impossible to ignore a difference that goes beyond names. Black Panther was an African superhero adventure, written, directed and acted by artists of African descent. The creative team behind Nakia was entirely white.

The series’ creators, writers and directors were all white male tv veterans. The “full-blooded Navajo” hero himself was played by white actor Robert Forster in brownface. His Navajo best friend was played by the same white actor who portrayed Tara’s plantation overseer in Gone With the Wind. At the time, this was all taken for granted. The only controversy around Nakia was a lawsuit claiming the series was a ripoff of the movie Billy Jack, a hit action film about another Navajo played by another white actor.

In fact, Nakia was considered a highly progressive show in its day. It highlighted issues of prejudice and land disputes in contemporary Native American communities, and was filmed on location in New Mexico. Today, though, the 1974 interviews in which Robert Forster was called upon to expound on how “Indians believe that man is one with the earth” are painful to read. The two Nakias, past and present, show how much our standards have changed, even if our society doesn’t always live up to them.

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