‘Black Panther’ star Danai Gurira on Okoye, her tradition, and the world of Wakanda

by W. Andrew Powell
Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira)

Black Panther is a triumph. The film is powerful, thrilling, well-written, and filled with amazing talent, on screen and behind the scenes. What makes the film all the more powerful is the strength of the characters, and the fact that the leading women steal the show.

Last week Danai Gurira, one of the stand-out stars of Black Panther, was in Toronto, and I had the chance to chat with her about what it meant to make the film and bring the role of Okoye to life. Okoye is the general in charge of the elite force known as the Dora Milaje, the division of all-female soldiers that protects the king of Wakanda.

In addition to her work in film and television–including her incredible role in the hit series The Walking Dead–Danai Gurira is also a playwright and an activist. Her work includes the Broadway hit Eclipsed, which featured an all-black and female creative cast and team, and earned five Tony Award nominations.

Marvel’s Black Panther is out in theatres now and also stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, Michael B. Jordan as Erik Stevens, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Letitia Wright as Shuri, and Angela Bassett as Ramonda.

Andrew Powell: What was the first thing you shot for Black Panther, and once you were on set performing was it a bit mind blowing, being part of this huge film?

Danai Gurira: “It was mind blowing. I think the first scene I shot was [at the beginning] in that moment where the guy has one of the girls hostage [and] T’Challa goes to pick up Nakia, with Okoye, and I come and I drop in and kill the guy. That was the first scene.”

“Yeah, it was really exciting. It was thrilling. I mean, the whole world is set up, the whole component of it being connected to girls being, of course, kidnapped by rebels, rebel soldiers, all that stuff. All that stuff is very important to me, to tell those types of stories. So the fact that it was being told on this global scale with Marvel, I mean, that was really… it was thrilling. I couldn’t even believe it. I mean, I had just worked with Lupita [Nyong’o ] on my play, Eclipsed, which deals with this exact issue. So I was just like, ‘This is unbelievable’.”

Powell: Did you have a pinch me moment at all with this cast? Because it is one of the most talented group of actors, and Marvel has assembled a lot of great people before, but Black Panther is impressive.

Gurira: “I’d worked with Lupita before, I had known Chadwick for years. But, yeah–it was a really thrilling group of people to get to spend time with and to create with. And to collaborate with. Absolutely.”

Danai Gurira (Okoye) on set with Director Ryan Coogler in Black Panther

Danai Gurira (Okoye) on set with Director Ryan Coogler in Black Panther

Powell: I love that Okoye has so much pride and joy about what she does. And at the same time, we’ve seen characters who are these protectors, who sometimes come across as mean. But there’s nothing mean about Okoye that I picked up on.

Gurira: “Yeah. Absolutely. And I wanted to allow her that type of dimension. You know, like, even when she tells those girls, ‘speak nothing of this day,’ she smiles at them as she walks away. Because she’s encouraging them to… she’s excited for them. They’re free, and she knows what they’ve been going through. You know.”

“So, even that sort of a drop in of, yes, I care about my nation’s secrecy, and keeping it protected in that way, but… the fact that these girls go through what they go through and they look just like the girls that I’m protecting in Wakanda, it doesn’t go unnoticed to her.”

“So I always wanted to make sure that dimensionality was there. And her sense of humor. Like, her joy with bantering with Shuri about T’Challa. All that stuff was very important to allow her to have, and it made her really fun to play. Even when she sort of teases Ross [Everett Ross, played by Martin Freeman] and winks at him. Like, that was all, just like, very specific to allowing her that type of dimensionality, and warmth of heart. Her heart bleeds for this nation.”

“She’s a huge traditionalist, and she wants this nation to thrive, just as her forefathers and foremothers made it thrive. And she is aware that this is a gem. And, you know, around us everywhere, there has been strife. There was colonization. All those things that we managed to not experience, and we managed to thrive and become as advanced as we became. And the protection of that is on her shoulders.”

“I felt that, when I walked into the room of the tribal council for the first time. And I just saw how stunningly Hannah [production designer Hannah Beachler] had designed it. And I just was like, wow, you know. This is a legacy that is on her shoulder to protect.”

Powell: There’s also a point near the end where she basically has a couple of opportunities that she has to choose between love and loyalty, and loyalty always wins with her in this film. Not without love, at the same time. How do you play a scene like that? Did you have things that you thought about to ground you when you’re playing a scene like that?

Gurira: “Absolutely. Like, I’m an African woman, I grew up on the continent. I’m American by birth, but I’m bicultural, I guess, and the idea of a nation like this really filled me with great emotion, you know. An African nation that is not considered developing, but is actually the frontrunner in technology and advancement. And largely because it was never colonized. You know, that to me, is a really amazing concept. Because I mean, at the end of the day, I always say, one of the biggest issues on the continent is, we will never know who we would have been without being colonized. We’ll never know, and we’ll never know how we could have self progressed because colonization is such an assault, and it’s so specific to altering the DNA of the culture’s ability to progress.”

“So the idea of a nation like Wakanda was very emotional for me. It was very easy for me to connect to on a very deep, emotional, resonant place. Just the idea of a place like that existing, was something that I think we all–those of us from the continent–would love to see, and that we yearn for in our heart of hearts.”

“So that was so not hard for me to connect to. And the idea of how she must … you know, even when she’s doing what’s right when it’s kind of wrong, you know. She has to stand up for the institution of her nation and how it runs, and how it was designed. It’s not her job to change it around, as she argues with Nakia about that. But like, at the end of the day, she’s able to support the king that she loves and wants to support, and be in the right. She’s not about to watch anyone destroy the legacy of this nation, even if it is the love of her life. At the end of the day, she is going to do what is best for her nation and for the millions of people that that represents.”

Powell: And for me, we didn’t quite get enough of their relationship either. Is there more we’ll see down the road perhaps?

Gurira: “Yes. He’s spoken of a missing scene, that, you know … I didn’t say it. Daniel shared it. I’m sure it’ll come out at some point. I’m sure at some point we’ll see it.”

Danai Gurira in Black Panther

Danai Gurira in Black Panther

Powell: That will be great. Well, in terms of working with Ryan Coogler on this, his vision is so singular and beautiful. The vision of Wakanda itself, did he talk to you about how beautiful the place was going to look? Did he instill that in you?

Gurira: “Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s part of the pride. That’s where the pride should come in, you know, very easily”.

“Not only do I come from a beautiful African nation already, but they had stunning imagery all around us to see how this nation had figured out how to progress. And you’d get to see that in every department, you’d see that in, you know, when I went into the wardrobe workshop area, warehouse, it was humongous. The research that Ruth Carter had done. So beautiful. And she pulled from so many components of the continent, to create the design for how we dressed.”

“And it was really … I feed off of images, just in terms of character creation, so it was so powerful to walk in there, and to see how the people of our country would walk through their days. And the creativity and the edginess, and the originality, the uniqueness, and the progress. That, to me, really fed my character’s need to protect. Protect this. Keep this protected at all costs, because you want this to continue to happen. You don’t want it to be destroyed or regressed.”

“And I thought there were so many powerful components… When W’Kabi [Daniel Kaluuya] steps away, and wants to fight, even though he can see that T’Challa has not died. That, to me, was so powerful about that component where things can happen, and coup d’etats happen just like that, you know. And all of a sudden you’re in a civil war, and that’s basically what we were at the edge of.”

“So of course, for Okoye, it was without question that she would quell that as fast as possible.”

Powell: I can’t help but ask. In a fight, if for some reason it happened that Okoye had to face T’Challa. And, you know, he wasn’t powered up, we’ll say, would she beat him? She seems like she could.

Gurira: “Oh, no, we never think of these things.”

Powell: I have to say, she’s just amazing. I guess the last question I would ask, then, otherwise is, what was it like playing the physicality of her? Because she’s got such a particular style of movement and fighting.

Gurira: “I know, I loved that. I loved that, and it was very interesting to find that. And I spent a lot of time with the distaff that she uses, and finding the tradition in her movements.”

“You know, she’s connecting to hundreds of years of tradition, in how she moves, and she doesn’t break that. Like, I loved the difference between how she fights and how Nakia fights, you know? Because with Nakia, Lupita shared that she was basically described by Ryan as, she fights street. Whereas Okoye fights tradition. You know, in terms of their style. And so I just loved that difference and specificity of character in that.”

“But it was really cool to learn that and to finally find… you have to work at it forever. And then you finally get out the way, and this character starts to emerge through your body, and that’s always the coolest part. But that comes after grueling, grueling–many, many grueling hours. And then you start to find her. She starts to fill your body, and it’s one of the best ways to find your character, I think, is how they move, in battle. So, it was extremely cool. I mean, it was a lot of work. But it was very cool. Very, very cool.”

Powell: Well, thank you very much for the time. I can’t wait to see her in Infinity War.

Danai Gurira: “Thank you, I appreciate that.”

Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)

Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) in Black Panther

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