Danai Gurira on ‘Black Panther’ and the incredible power of Wakanda

Danai Gurira stars as Okoye in Marvel/Disney's 'Black Panther.'. Marvel/Disney

Critics are raving about Marvel/Disney’s Black Panther, calling it everything from “groundbreaking” to “the first of its kind.” To be sure, the movie is a breathtaking piece of work, and each cast member is clearly feeling the importance of what they’ve crafted.

Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, the greatest warrior in all of fictional country Wakanda, is no exception. Put simply, Gurira is a force in Black Panther. Playing a far bigger part than most women in supporting roles — especially as a woman of colour — Gurira is at once powerful, fiercely loyal, and an imperative figure in the kingdom of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). She doesn’t just sit back and watch. She takes action.

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Global News spoke with Gurira over the phone in Toronto, when she was in town for the Canadian premiere. She talked to us about what it meant to her to play Okoye, and how it felt to be a part of a movie representative of black people and Africa.

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Global News: How great a time did you have working on Black Panther?
Danai Gurira: I had a really great time. It was intense, we were all really in it, 150 per cent. We collaborated, we were a family. We all share a joint ownership of the product, and that’s really awesome. There were some long, gruelling, intense hours, but that’s what comes with creating something you really care about.

Your role, Okoye, was far bigger than I thought it would be. What did it mean to you personally to play a female general and a role like this?
I’m an African woman. I try to tell stories that — even as a playwright — give African women perspective they rarely get. To get to put a character like Okoye up on the big screen, what’s better than that? It’s very exciting to me to put an African female character on that platform.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where African women are portrayed so powerfully. Having grown up in Zimbabwe, did that have a special meaning for you?
Yes, exactly. That’s why I have such passion about telling African female stories and African stories as a whole. I know we don’t get a lot of images — forget African, but even black images — that allow us to see this type … to see black people or people of colour put on this type of platform and given this type of a powerful storyline.

I was just in Zimbabwe last month and people are ecstatic, they’re really excited about this movie. A lot of people are major Marvel fans, too! I was at a conference for my non-profit, and a couple of the actresses stood up doing their parts and they had Marvel T-shirts on. I was like, “Wow!” I didn’t realize that Marvel was that resonant in my country, but it is. They all knew about Black Panther and they’re all very excited for it. It means a lot, to see Africa put on this platform, and it meant a lot to me to play a character who speaks in an African language. You just never see these things, so it’s very special to those of us who grew up on the continent, and those of us who knew how distorted or very misrepresented Africans can be.

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It’s very refreshing and welcomed imagery that’s coming our way.

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Please tell me you’ve seen the video of those kids dancing when they found out they were going to see Black Panther.
I have! One of the execs sent it to me. [Laughs]

What did you think when you saw it?
There’s nothing better than that, quite honestly. If, in any way, we are affecting the imagery and the mindset of young children of colour or young children, in general, to see things differently, or to have them celebrate black people being self-determined and powerful on the big screen …As we know, media representation is very powerful … To see this sort of impact happening before the movie’s even released, I mean, … that’s everything.

One aspect of Okoye that really struck me is her loyalty. She chooses Wakanda over everything else. Where does that loyalty come from?
I frickin’ love that about her. [Laughs] To me, that says so much about who she is. I remember walking into that beautiful tribal council room, where they meet in that circle … and I remember the might and the power and the beauty of this African nation that is self-actualized. I remember thinking, “This is what is on her shoulders. This is what she protects: this nation and its longevity.”
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The idea of that being jeopardized, of the little boys and girls of Wakanda not being able to experience the Wakanda she got to experience, … the idea of losing the legacy that she’s literally assigned to protect as the general, that would be the worst thing ever for her. Because, at the end of the day, she is very much wired and focused on integrity and doing what is right.

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During shooting, were you actually seeing that beauty of Wakanda, or was that a blue screen?
That was not blue screen, that was outdoors in beautiful Georgia. It’s so stunning that it did actually look like a beautiful nation that you wanted to protect. I tell you, walking onto those sets and being among 300 or 400 black actors, all dressed in this gorgeous attire, these amazing hairdos … it was very otherworldly. I’ve acted in a few things in my time, and I’ve watched a few things in my time, and I have never seen anything like this.

It definitely felt like Wakanda, wherever we were.

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[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

‘Black Panther’ opens in theatres across Canada on Feb. 16.

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