Danai Gurira, who stars as Okoye, the fiercely traditionalist leader of Dora Milaje, always sensed director Ryan Cooglar’s vision was something special, but no one could have predicted the magnitude of the film’s positive reception. She hopes this moment in cinematic history will shift representation in storytelling.
“We know it can be done and we don’t need to go back. We have no reason to reverse and to go to a time where this is rare or telling stories from the non-white perspective is odd or unusual.”
How has the journey been since the release of the film to the award consideration you’re seeing now?
It’s been incredible. Really, the real spirit of this film was how we all came in there. Ryan [Cooglar] gathered around him a group of artists who were really keen to realize his vision and understood that there was a resonance that was addressing something that we all felt we would love to see. So it’s really been beautiful. We’ve all put in such hard work, dedication, and commitment to the project and really formed a family and a bond.
You can’t anticipate the type of response that happened. You just can’t. I mean, we were just floored by the response and the resonance, and then it resulted also in being able to celebrate it through an award season. It’s been really amazing and we also get to celebrate each other. Like, I got to present Ryan with an award with Michael B. [Jordan] last week in Palm Springs, and going to the Globes, and going to AFI, and getting presented with our award there, it’s been incredible, because in the beginning, all we were doing was trying to tell a story with all we had.
The film, since its release, has been pinned as not only just biggest film in terms of revenue, but also the most culturally relevant film of recent years. Did you see that coming at all?
You can never anticipate. I see this as an actor and also as a playwright. You could never prescribe an audience’s response to a piece of art. All you can do is imbue it with the right spirit and the right intentions, and that’s definitely what we were doing from the jump. We really wanted to see the story told ourselves. We knew, a lot of us, and people of color, that we had yet to see a story of this type, with these types of characters receiving this type of a platform. So we understood that responsibility, but we were also very passionate. We had the opportunity to tell such a story, and that’s really where you have to stay focused. Ryan would say that as well. You’re focusing on that day and making sure that the scene that’s being executed that day is given the fullest breath and its potential is fully realized. The beauty of it was that we were really able to collaborate, and that’s what I always say about it. Ryan would say I didn’t want to sign on actors who just learn their lines, you know? It was clear he wanted us all at the table. We were allowed to collaborate and really contribute, and the result of that is that you see. What we see at the end of the day is something that we feel ownership about, and that is especially special. It’s definitely something that Marvel must also be given credit for because they also were willing to hear our voices and bring us to the table.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read somewhere that the role of Okoye came to you as a straight offer?
Yes, it did.
Did you know anything about Marvel or Black Panther before this came to you, and what were your initial thoughts when you first read Okoye?
Well, I knew absolutely nothing about Black Panther. I knew something about Marvel. I didn’t know anything about Black Panther, and I always liked how epic and beautifully executed Marvel movies were, but I didn’t know much about the universe in that regard. So it was a learning curve.
When I got the offer, I was at the opening of my play Eclipsed on Broadway. My manager decided to tell me as I was walking out to the car to leave, and I was like, “What?” I couldn’t even process what he was saying, and then I got back to LA a few weeks later. I sat down with Ryan and really had an astounding experience talking to him. When you feel that click and that giddiness that I feel is essential for when I take a role. I really have to feel excited like a kid on Christmas morn’, you know? I had so much respect for Ryan already and what he’s accomplished so young and the astounding boldness that he’s had around storytelling, and then sitting with him and hearing his vision, it was so thrilling to me because I’m a storyteller. I tell stories from an African female perspective as a playwright.
It’s just one of those awesome things when you realize you’re not alone in the struggle because you’re sitting across from someone who’s really thought out this really stunning way of telling a story from the musical perspective that has never been addressed before, and that just felt like a gift. I was so excited. I couldn’t remember where I parked my car after that meeting, but it was very clear that I was entirely all in, and we read the script later, much later on, way after I accepted the part, because I was all the way in long before I had a script.
What about Okoye? What first struck you about your character?
Well, I mean, to see an African woman who was leading a military, who’s ever seen that? It’s right there. That is so cool, and then allowing her dimension, and to have a love life and all those different things simultaneously, you know? The beauty of the fact that she’s such a traditionalist and she wants to follow the ways that her foremothers and her forefathers created to keep this land safe, and how that’s going to butt up against Nakia and ultimately Killmonger. So allowing her individuality and her specificity and then the dimension of the fact that she’s military, but she’s not zealous. She’s joyous, was really something I found really thrilling and was excited to do.
[Ryan] had seen me in a film called Mother of George when it came out the same year as Fruitvale Station. I had no idea he’d seen the film. I was around Michael B. and a lot of talent that year at Sundance, but I didn’t meet him that year. [That year] was when he decided he was going to work with me. You never know what seeds you plant where. You just never know. So four years later, the opportunity arises for us to work together, and I’ve always adored his work. So it was very cool.
You were born in the states, but then you moved back to Zimbabwe at an early age?
Yes, at 5.
What about your Zimbabwean upbringing and teachings were you able to incorporate within Okoye?
I grew up in Southern Africa. I grew up around African women. So, absolutely, in all the ways in which I’ve been around a lot of African women. I understand a lot about who we are and what makes us tick. I also understand that there’s our specificity in terms of ways that I don’t think we get to often see African women portrayed.
The beauty of Wakanda is that it’s that nation that actualized itself outside of colonization, which is something that Africa is still crippled by in terms of its legacy and how it’s still trying to find its own identity in some ways. So the beauty of Wakanda is that it didn’t go through that. So it was also somewhat of an imaginate of how you can have a complete unadulterated fulfilment, and pride, and connection, and ownership of your culture being something that has been so successful, that you are now the most successful nation on the planet, and that sense of pride.
The other thing that was cool was that when you see African women and their power, it’s a very powerful thing, and I don’t think the world sees it enough or celebrates it enough when it does happen. And Wakanda as a nation is a place where African women and men are on this very equal plain, and I loved being able to portray that and explore that because that’s where we should all be aspiring to get to.
This film, while led by a Black Panther/ T’Challa, had a strong female empowerment factor with you, Lupita [Nyong’o], Angela Bassett, and Letitia [Wright]. What was that like?
It was incredible. We formed a very strong sisterhood. Of course, I’ve still worked with Letitia up until right now. She’s in my play in London as we speak and that’s my sister, and Lupita’s my sister, and you know, of course Angela’s our queen. We just have a very tight-knit companionship, and we were really able to lean on each other, to bounce ideas off each other, to get support from each other, to come forward with ideas together and thoughts that we were having around the female dynamics in the narrative. We were a straight-up team. Me and Lupita very, very much so, and it was really special to have real sisterhood. That to me is always so crucial and so right to have.
How did you first get inspired to go into entertainment business?
What’s funny is that I never saw what I wanted to do as entertainment. That’s going to sound wretchedly pretentious, but I never did. I always saw what I was going to do as needing to tell stories that aren’t being told. Why isn’t the African female voice being heard? What can I do to help that happen? It was always this kind of urgency and passion about it for me, and rage, really. Much of my craft starts from a place of rage, and then it evolves. So that was really where I started from.
I went into a graduate acting program, though I was versed in social psychology, and I was going to do the sort of work you do where it’s not clinical psychology; it’s sociological psychology that involves the data being used to fight for the pros of something like Brown versus the Board of Education. I wanted to do that for my career, but then I just couldn’t ignore how passionate I was about the arts.
It was only when I went to South Africa and had an experience there during a semester abroad in college where I really realized how people have used the arts to affect social change. I was actually in a program called Art and Social Change and there I actually found my calling very clearly, which was you’re going to use your art to try and affect social opinion, and that’s what I started to do. I went to school in graduate acting at Tish, and that’s the school that teaches you how to not just be an actor, but a storyteller. It’s where I created my first play, which was around HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. How do you affect people and affect the ways that things are foreseen or perceived? Storytelling is such a fantastic way to do that. The plays I wrote, it’s all connected to that, and the things I agreed to do are connected to that.
With the success of Black Panther, are you optimistic about the future of storytelling from communities that were traditionally marginalized?
I definitely feel like we all hope and pray. You live in hope that it’s about climate and not weather. I also take the responsibility on myself and everyone around me to keep pushing for this result. We know it’s possible. We head forward, we don’t turn back.