Danai Gurira On Her 'Black Panther' Role: 'She Protects What We Would Have Been'

Feb 17, 2018
Originally published on February 17, 2018 5:30 pm

Black Panther is a film that's not only hot but historic. It's based on the Marvel comic of the same name and is directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed). According to Fandango, pre-sale tickets for the film have already surpassed that of any previous superhero movie ever.

Black Panther is the alter ego of King T'Challa, who reigns over the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, the sole source of a substance called vibranium. It's given the kingdom great wealth and technical advancement, which King T'Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) is sworn to protect. He, in turn, is protected by a group of female warriors led by Okoye, played with scene-stealing verve by actress and playwright Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead, Mother Of George).

"When we were announced as the additional cast at Comic-Con, that was really amazing," Gurira says. "But then the real moment hit — it was when that trailer came out. That's when the response was something we could never have imagined, quite honestly."


Interview Highlights

On being involved with Black Panther

I've always felt blessed to be a part of this because I could understand the response, in the sense that this is imagery and narrative that many of us have yearned for. I know, being a black woman who's from Zimbabwe and from the United States, I've yearned for this type of imagery. I mean, it's one of those things I'm just excited it was getting made. The idea of actually touching into Africans being treated with this sort of respect and on this type of a platform, and the narrative coming from, you know, the black perspective entirely. And the sort of pride. There's something about the pride that this shows, that Wakanda shows — African pride, black pride, pride of your people, of your culture, of you know, who you are outside of any hegemonical influence, and how you can create your own hegemony right there amongst your own people. That, I think, is something people have really attached to. And I get it, being that I'm African, but you know I think it's beyond that. Many, many people of every different race I've come across are really attaching to that, and it's just been really thrilling. I really couldn't have anticipated it.

On being approached for the film

I was like, "What?" I couldn't even believe it. I was like, "Marvel and Ryan Coogler are doing what?" Like, I was trying to piece [it] together in my brain. My manager had to repeat it like four times. But like when I sat down with Mr. Coogler, you know, what's so very important to me as an African woman and as a playwright who writes from the African perspective — because of the lack thereof, or the misrepresentation thereof, or the distortion thereof — it was very important that this was, you know, that an African narrative is treated with the respect and authenticity. And sitting down with him and hearing his vision, I was just like, "OK, this is special."

On the experience of making a blockbuster

It's great. I mean, I think what's really exciting to me is the idea that it's a blockbuster where I'm speaking Xhosa, you know? I just think that's the coolest thing in the world. Xhosa — it's the same language that is native to Nelson Mandela. It's from the Cape region of South Africa. And Mr. John Kani, who plays T'Challa's father, T'Chaka, he's Xhosa. And so they started and agreed to that language being the language of Wakanda in Captain America: Civil War, where of course, T'Chaka is unfortunately killed.

On her character Okoye

Okoye is the general of [T'Challa's] armed forces — she's the head of the Dora Milaje. The Dora Milaje, as we know from the comic books, are like his special guard. They're also pretty much the guardians of the throne and the royal family, which makes them pretty much the guardians of the stability of the nation. And she works pretty much as his right hand woman — not man — and is involved in everything he does.

On Okoye being both fierce and feminine

I thought that was just such a combination that you don't often get to see. One gets sacrificed for the other in some sense, but it's — I know so many fierce and feminine women, you know? And I was like, "When do we get to see that on screen?" And so the thing that really connected me in a really powerful way was her love and her loyalty to this thing called Wakanda, this nation that was never colonized and consequently became the most advanced nation on the globe, in terms of technology, and used its resources for its own people, which Africa never got to do. The idea of being a guardian of that place, of being a protector alongside the king and protecting him, alongside Black Panther. To me, that just resonated so deeply as something that, you know, you are loyal to — to the death and beyond. You are upholding the traditions and the brilliant ideals of your foremothers and your forefathers and you do that at all costs. And she's a traditionalist. I'm not a traditionalist, but in a sense I am because I always wonder — Africans always wonder — "Who would we have been if we weren't colonized?" And she protects what we would have been, and to me, it made her very palpable.

Dustin DeSoto, Adhiti Bandlamudi and Gemma Watters produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, we get our chance to talk about a movie that is not only hot but historic - Marvel's "Black Panther."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) The Black Panther been a protector of Wakanda for generations. Now, it is time to show the outside world who we are.

MARTIN: "Black Panther" is based on the Marvel comic of the same name. It's directed by Ryan Coogler. His previous directing credits were "Fruitvale Station" and "Creed." And according to the online ticket retailer Fandango, more presale tickets for the film were sold than for any other superhero movie ever. Now, the movie is out now, but just in case you aren't one of the millions of people who snagged one of those first tickets, let us catch you up.

Black Panther is the alter ego of King T'Challa, who reigns over the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. Wakanda is the sole source of a substance called vibranium, which has given the kingdom great wealth and technological advancement. King T'Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, is sworn to protect it. And he, in turn, is protected by a group of female warriors led by Okoye, played with scene-stealing verve by Danai Gurira. And Danai Gurira is with us now from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DANAI GURIRA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I feel like I should salute my general.

GURIRA: (Laughter) No need. At ease. At ease.

MARTIN: Thank you. Thank you. As we were when did you realize that this film wasn't just a film but a phenomenon? Now I mentioned the online presales but the ecstatic reviews, people buying rows of seats, people trying to buy out - rent out whole theaters so that school kids could see it. At what point did you realize that this was all happening?

GURIRA: Well, even the excitement when it was just first announced, when we were announced as the additional cast at Comic-Con, that was really amazing. But then the real moment hit, it was when when that trailer came out. That's when the response was something we could never have imagined, quite honestly.

MARTIN: Well, how did you react to that? I mean, what did you say to yourself?

GURIRA: You know, I've always felt blessed to be a part of this because I could understand the response in the sense that this is imagery and narrative that many of us have yearned for. I know, being a black woman whose from Zimbabwe and from the United States, I've yearned for this type of imagery. I mean, it's one of those things I'm just excited it was getting made. The idea of actually touching into Africans being treated with this sort of respect and on this type of a platform and the narrative coming from, you know, the black perspective entirely and the sort of pride.

There's something about the pride that this shows, that Wakanda shows, African pride, black pride, pride of your people, of your culture of, you know, who you are outside of any hegemonical influence and how you can create your own hegemony right there amongst your own people. That, I think, is something people have really attached to. And I get it, being that I'm African. But, you know, I think it's beyond that. Many, many people of every different race I've come across are really attaching to that. And it's just been really thrilling. I really couldn't have anticipated it.

MARTIN: I was wondering, what was the chicken and what was the egg? Because there's, you know, black Hollywood royalty as a part of this. I mean, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Oscar winner, your friend, Lupita Nyong'o, who starred in one of your plays. Were all of these major figures - yourself included - attracted to this project, or do you think people are attracted to the project because people like you are in it?

GURIRA: I think it's hard to say. But I will say that we were attracted to this astounding idea of - you know, I heard about it. I was told I had the offer actually the night "Eclipsed" opened on Broadway, Speaking of that play. And I was like, what? I couldn't even believe it. I was like, Marvel and Ryan Coogler are doing what? Like, I was like trying to piece together in my brain. Like, my manager had to repeat it like four times.

But like, you know, when I sat down with Mr. Coogler, you know, what's very important to me as an African woman and as a playwright who writes from the African perspective because of the lack thereof or the misrepresentation thereof or the distortion thereof, it was very important that this was, you know, that an African narrative is treated with respect and an authenticity. And sitting down with him and hearing his vision, I was just like, OK, this is special.

MARTIN: Let me back up for folks who don't know exactly what we're talking about here. I want to mention that you have a whole other life outside of being an awesome butt-kicking bodyguard to the king. People know you as the zombie killer Michonne in AMC's "The Walking Dead." You are an accomplished playwright. You've been nominated for a Tony Award for your play "Eclipsed." So you are well-positioned as both a creator of content and as a person who has starred in kind of culture-grabbing material yourself. And you've also, you know, appeared in independent films. I'm just wondering - this whole blockbuster experience, because this is what this is, what is that like?

GURIRA: It's great. I mean, I think what's really exciting to me is the idea that it's a blockbuster where I'm speaking Xhosa.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that.

GURIRA: (Laughter) I just think that's the coolest thing in the world.

MARTIN: Actually, why don't I just do this? Why don't I play a clip? And then we'll talk about it. In the film, you play, as we said, Okoye, the lead general of the king's special forces unit. In this scene, you're working with the CIA. You've helped catch one of the bad guys. You're observing the interrogation. And your character is speaking to the king, T'Challa, in front of the CIA agent that you've teamed up with. Let's play that clip, and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) After your questioning, we will take him back to Wakanda with us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) What? No. I like you a lot, but he's in my custody now. He's not going anywhere. Listen. I'm doing you guys a favor by letting you even be in here.

GURIRA: (As Okoye, speaking Xhosa).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Does she speak English?

GURIRA: (As Okoye) When she wants to.

MARTIN: So much going on here (laughter). Now tell me again, you are, in fact, speaking...

GURIRA: Xhosa. It's the same language that is native to Nelson Mandela. It's from the Cape region of South Africa. And Mr. John Kani, who plays to T'Challa's father, T'Chaka, he's Xhosa. And so he - they started and agreed to that language being the language of Wakanda in "Captain America: Civil War" where, of course, T'Chaka is unfortunately killed.

MARTIN: Tell us a bit more about Okoye, your character. She is amazing.

GURIRA: Thank you. Okoye is the - yes, she's the general of his armed forces. She's the head of the Dora Milaje. The Dora Milaje, as we know from the comic books, are like his special guard. They're also pretty much the guardians of the throne and the royal family, which makes them pretty much the guardians of the stability of the nation. And she works pretty much as his right-hand woman - not man - and is involved in everything he does.

MARTIN: But the thing that we noticed was that that, unlike other superhero movies, where, you know, there may be a female character who is a meaty character but she's still the one. You know, there's one female strong character like, you know, Black Widow, who's a great character but, you know, she's still surrounded by men. In this film, the women - no one is a sidekick. Yes, King T'Challa is the lead. He's the Black Panther. But their roles, including yours, are quite substantial. And they have their own agency.

GURIRA: Arc.

MARTIN: Arc, yeah. And I wondered, how did you understand her inner core? Because she still is - she still loves someone. I mean, she is seen to have a love relationship. And so it's not like she's just a - she's not a celibate. Like, she's not sworn to not have feelings. But how did you understand her?

GURIRA: I thought that was really exciting, the multi-dimensionality of that and the fact that she was allowed to be very fierce and very feminine. And I thought that was just such a combination that you don't often get to see. One gets sacrificed for the other in some sense. But it's - I know so many fierce and feminine women, you know. And I was like, when do we get to see that on screen? And so the thing that really connected me in a really powerful way was her love and her loyalty to this thing called Wakanda, this nation that was never colonized and consequently became the most advanced nation on the globe in terms of technology and used its resources for its own people, which Africa never got to do, you know.

The idea of being a guardian of that place, of being a protector alongside Black Panther, to me, that just resonated so deeply as something that, you know, you are loyal to to the death and beyond. You know, Africans always wonder, who would we have been if we weren't colonized? And she protects what we would have been. And to me, that just - it was very - it made her very palpable.

MARTIN: That's Danai Gurira. She is currently starring in Marvel's "Black Panther." She was kind of to join us from our bureau in New York. Danai Gurira, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GURIRA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE STARS")

SZA: (Singing) This may be the night that my dreams might let me know. All the stars are closer. All the stars are closer. All the stars are closer. This may be the night that my dreams might let me know. All the stars are closer. All the stars are closer. All the stars are closer.

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) Tell me what you're going to do to me. Confrontation ain't nothing to new me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.