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Danai Gurira on Black female agency in Black Panther

Contributed by
Feb 16, 2018

By now, everyone knows that Danai Gurira plays Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, the Royal Family’s personal guard in Black Panther. Before that, most people knew her as zombie assassin Michonne on The Walking Dead. But many don’t realize that she wrote a Tony Award-winning play, was born in Iowa and raised in Zimbabwe, or is an activist and champion for girls and women around the world.

I got a chance to talk to her about what it means to play such a powerful role at such a powerful time in a cast with so many powerful women.


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courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

As a writer, what did you love about the Black Panther script, and as an actress, what did you love about the role of Okoye? As an activist, I'm thinking of your non-profit Love Our Girls in particular; what are you most proud about?

I am those three things. And I'm also an African; It's very important to me how African stories are told. So initially, I was like, "Okay, let me find out what this is." And then I heard Ryan Coogler was involved and I was like, that's amazing. Because I love how he approaches his storytelling.

I was just floored by his vision, how authentic he was making it, how powerful he was making it, how complex he was making the female characters. He'd done so much research and was intertwining that into this, you know, really epic idea of a film. I was like, this has never been seen!

He was so willing to allow us to come to the table and bring our thoughts, and allowed for us to feel such ownership. So those are really the elements that really excited me as a writer, as an actor. This is how I like to work — as an artist, while I'm working with someone who has such a strong vision, who has a vision that feels so right and so important to me. And I feel like it will to many, many others. And also [Ryan's] coming at it from a very authentic and truthful, powerful, courageous place.

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courtesy of Marvel Studios

And as an activist, my most passionate place for me is around girls and women and advocacy therein. It was very, very important that these women be very complex, that they are powerful. They are confident, they are flawed because they are real, you know? You want real, you know what I mean? You want real and you want powerful so that girls can realize, "I can relate to it," or something truthful, but [they] could also aspire to it. Like “I could be her.”

Shuri, Letitia Wright

Credit: Marvel Studios

I could become an amazing scientist like Shuri. Or I could become the general of an army like Okoye, or I could become a woman who doesn't just fall into her man's arms when he shows that he still loves her, like Nakia — who still has a vision for her life and for the world and impacts the mind of her man for the better.

Yes! That was so powerful!

All those things are very exciting for young girls to see. What I loved about the Dora Milaje is that they have this combination of being both very feminine with our tattoos on our bald heads, but at the same time we're covered from head to toe, which I thought was very elegant and cool and revolutionary, really. [They're] not standing around in next to nothing [and] at the same time, still extremely feminine and regal and beautiful.

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courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

That duality with female characters is rarely seen. We’re not allowed to have levels.

Yes. There are so many times that that is not allowed to co-exist. And one gets deeply compromised for the other. And there are many women in the world, girls in the world, who are not exploring other sides of themselves because they don't feel like they can be one thing and another at the same time. And the world loses out on that potential. So if these images in any way, shape, or form can affect a girl's realization that I can be whatever I need, want to be, whatever I feel my heart's calling me to be, and I want to explore that to its fullest. For me, that's everything. There's some way that we can hit the minds of girls and women and free them of whatever shackle, in the form of a wig or whatever else.

I kept thinking when I saw it, had I seen this movie when a little girl myself, how it would've affected me. I was usually the only little black girl wherever I went. And I kept thinking, oh my God, had I seen Shuri when I was 12, you couldn't have stopped me.

See? That’s so powerful. Wow. Thank you for that.