If you don’t know, now you know—Danai Gurira is a straight-up treasure. Until now, the American-born, Zimbabwean-raised actor and playwright was probs best known for her portrayal of the ass-kicking, katana-wielding Michonne on The Walking Dead, but her turn as Wakandan military general Okoye in Marvel’s highly (HIGHLY) anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, is being lauded as a … and deservedly so.
As Okoye, Gurira is the personal bodyguard to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of Wakanda, a fictional African country that a) is super technologically advanced and b) has never been colonized. And thought she’s a great fighter—can we talk about that move?!—Okoye transcends the warrior narrative. The leader of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje, an all-female special forces unit, and one of the king’s most trusted advisors, she’s a key player in the country’s political landscape, and its interactions with the rest of the world.
And Gurira transcends categorization in real life, too. In addition to her acting chops, she’s also a Tony-nominated playwright, and she’s long been committed to telling African stories onstage. Here, she chats with FLARE about how Black Panther does the same thing—though on a much, much bigger scale than she’s used to—and why this superhero movie feels important for everyone, not just people of colour.
It doesn’t get much bigger than Black Panther
Gurira’s genre-spanning career includes a stint on , the critically acclaimed HBO drama set in New Orleans, and a recent turn as Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, in the biopic . Oh, and she’s also staged six plays, including the Tony-nominated Eclipse, a powerful—and surprisingly funny—work about five women during the 2003 Liberian civil war, some of whom are being kept as sex slaves by a military officer. It was the first play with an all-Black cast and crew to debut on Broadway, which is a huge accomplishment—but still, it’s tiny compared to the scope of Black Panther: “I’d never gotten to play this type of a role, I never got to play anything on this scale,” Gurira said.
“I always marvelled at how you’d walk onto the set and there would be 300 people all beautifully decked out, with everything done specifically from their hair to what they’re wearing to their makeup. It was just amazing, the scale of what could be accomplished in a day. I’ve just never seen anything like it.”
Seeing the movie for the first time was *kind of* a big deal
“I think it was almost everyone’s first time seeing the movie, except for Chadwick [Boseman]. It was very, very cool—and scary,” Gurira reveals. “I remember I was shuddering and my assistant was like, ‘What is wrong with her?’ I was just so nervous, and my body does that when I’m nervous. It kind of shakes with nerves and adrenaline. But I was also really enjoying it. I had Michael B. Jordan sitting behind me I kept grabbing his calf like, ‘Oh my god!'”
First of all, wouldn’t we all do the exact same thing in her situation? (Yes, we definitely would.) But also: Gurira’s excitement and nerves make total sense. Principal photography for Black Panther wrapped up in April 2017, so it’s been literal months since the actor was immersed in Wakanda. Returning to this world was major—especially since she was seeing the finished film for the first time alongside an audience full of fans.
“At first I was like, ‘Can’t we see it first?!’ But I actually love that we saw it for the first time with an audience. It was so great to experience it with such an enthusiastic crowd, and to [see] all that they were responding to, it was just really exciting. Now that I’ve gone through that way, I’d have it no other way.”
Real talk: this particular superhero movie feels more important than your average Marvel flick
If a review of Black Panther doesn’t include the words “more than just a superhero movie,” did it really happen? We kid. But seriously: praise is being heaped on this movie for both its sheer entertainment factor and the way it addresses race and power. For Gurira, part of what makes Black Panther feel so important are its commitment to real diversity and representation. “[It was amazing] to actually step into a character that speaks an African language,” she says. “I love getting to celebrate different components and facets of African experiences and life, so to be able to step into a character that speaks Xhosa, and is a General in an army of a nation that was never colonized and is actually the most powerful nation on the planet, there’s so much that resonated for me.”
Gurira has always tried to tell stories about her culture and background—in an interview with PBS just before Eclipsed opened on Broadway in 2016, she described her approach to theatre as giving the audience a chance to spend a couple of hours getting to know an African woman as a full person—you know, like you do when you watch other plays. “[Representation is] something that I yearned for,” she says. “That’s why I started to write, because I found African experiences and African perspectives to be very fascinating and important and interesting and just as worthy of a platform as any other perspective—but you’d never see it.”
… And not just for people of colour
But while telling these rarely-shared stories is deeply person for Gurira, she’s glad—and, tbh, not surprised—that Black Panther resonates with people who aren’t Black, too. “I think [this story] is something we’ve been starved of seeing, and that the world has been long ready to see it, and long ready to embrace the refreshing new perspective a diverse perspective. And, I think that comes from everybody—I’ve had that sort of response from every demographic I can name, and I find that to be so telling.”
“When I started to write [plays that told] African stories, there was no one else doing it. I was just kind of a loner. But like a mad scientist, I had my hypothesis that if you create great stories people will respond. And if it comes from the African perspective, people will still respond to that perspective, because they don’t need one type of conduit for things to feel universal. And I love that this movie proves that in a way that no one can go back on. There’s no way you can dispute it.”
Wakanda is a peek into what could have been
Black Panther is clearly, proudly —it’s about a speculative future where colonization didn’t happen, after all. But that doesn’t mean it’s all spaceships and wearable tech. The movie actually has lots to say about the social impact of living in a nation that was never conquered by the West. Wakanda’s attitude toward women “is totally connected to the idea of ‘what would we have been?'” Gurira says. “This is what this nation became outside of colonization and the imposed ideology of who you are and how you’re meant to act to be a successful human being. Wakanda found a whole new way of forging that identity using everybody’s strength, be it the young woman who is technologically very smart, or who has great leadership abilities and military abilities, or who has great espionage abilities. All of these different types of women were allowed to exist in their fullest potential.”
And that’s something that is making an impact in real life, too. “I’ve already seen the full impact that these female characters have had on young girls. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about that, and it’s really thrilling because that’s the whole point. There’s nothing more important than having Black Panther bring a different type of representation to young girls who might feel marginalized and underrepresented. It’s really something unprecedented and it’s exciting for me that there is a resonance and an impact, especially for the young.”
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