Box office hit Black Panther is more than just another superhero movie: it’s the first time an all-black cast and production team have starred in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The significance of this is not lost on actress Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, the chief warrior sworn to protect the superhero, the Black Panther. But it’s the not the first time she’s stormed the status quo with her wits, intelligence or skill.
Danai isn’t just an actress, she is also an activist and playwright who has written and appeared in numerous plays on and off Broadway. It was her Tony Award-nominated 2016 narrative Eclipse that set the tone for the superhero movie.
Written after she spent time in Libya speaking with female former soldiers, sex slaves and peace negotiators, her Black Panther co-star Lupita N’yongo was cast as the lead. Eclipse was the first Broadway play featuring an all-black female cast, a black female director and written by a black woman.
“I’ve had a passion for telling African stories for a really long time, being American-born and Zimbabwe-raised. That biculturalism is something that I try to address in my work as a playwright but nothing can address it like a Marvel movie,” she told the New York Times.
Describing herself as a “spiritual Christian”, it’s no wonder Danai is smashing down so many gender and race related walls.
The child of migrants who moved to the United States from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before she was born, she embraced her cultural heritage when the family returned to Zimbabwe in 1983.
Today her bicultural identity has been deeply woven into her spirituality and art, and this is due to her ancestry: her great grandmother was a Methodist missionary-turned-schoolteacher, and her grandfather was a Methodist pastor.
Her father also went on to become a Methodist, and she never forgot her American heritage, with her mother hanging a picture of Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr on the mantle.
Proving that her brains are equally matched by her acting skills, when she moved back to the United States she received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Masters in Fine Acting. She has gone on to receive numerous nominations and awards as a playwright and theatre actress.
But it was her role as the zombie-slaying Michonne in the apocalyptic horror series The Walking Dead that put her in the spotlight, and highlighted her impetus for portraying strong female leads, similar to herself.
“The demoiselle in distress seems to be the general modus operandi for female representation too often… I do like to see women highlighted, showing their strengths and their weaknesses, their struggles, their abilities to overcome, to make unpopular choices, to see the best and worst of themselves,” she said in an interview with the Wilma Theater.
“I am just attracted to female lead characters. ‘Sheroes’, I guess.”
When it comes to both writing and acting, Danai feels an undeniable responsibility to tell these stories. “Spiritually I feel I’m called to this. God revealed it to me,” she said to This Stage magazine.
While Danai plays the protector of a superhero on the big screen, there’s no doubt that in real life she embodies the ‘sheroe’ she so often portrays.
Even with her successful career, she finds time to contribute to the ONE Campaign, which fights poverty, and Bring Back Our Girls, that returns kidnapped students in Nigeria. She also founded Love Our Girls, which empowers young woman across the globe, and co-founded the Almasi Arts Alliance, a non-profit organisation that facilitates work between Zimbabwean and American artists.
Perhaps this hero doesn’t wear a cape, but without a doubt Danai is a sheroe changing the status quo one movie at a time.