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‘Wakanda Forever’ Star Danai Gurira Says It Was Important To See Her Character Fail

“I Run This” is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Wendy Osefo interview here.

Danai Gurira hasn’t processed everything it took to make “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” just yet.

Marvel Studios’ latest has reigned at the top of the box office for five weekends straight, grossing more than $400 million in the U.S. It’s a Marvel blockbuster, of course, so that doesn’t come as a surprise ― especially as fans were eager to witness how the franchise would honor the late Chadwick Boseman, who died in 2020 before filming started for the follow-up to the movie that he helped make a cultural phenomenon.

The beautifully heartwarming surprise, however, came from the collective sense of homegoing that became a major on- and off-screen part of the “Wakanda Forever” experience. Watching it, it felt more like a triumphant tribute than a superhero movie. Silence during the film’s moments of mourning begat silence among theatergoers. The legacy Boseman left behind was felt and honored throughout the film and into the press run for director Ryan Coogler and the cast.

“We had a very clear purpose in mind to honor our brother with this film,” Gurira said. “That was the purpose. It was about bringing his beautiful legacy to the people again. And so if that happened, if people are receiving it, that is everything to us.”

Gurira has played Dora Milaje General Okoye since the character was introduced in the MCU with “Black Panther” in 2018. In “Wakanda Forever,” Okoye is stripped of her title after failing to protect Shuri (Letitia Wright) from being captured by the Talokanil. It is arguably the first time audiences see Okoye in a vulnerable state. Gurira said that while Okoye wasn’t on screen as much as fans probably wanted, it was important for them to see her fail.

And as Okoye grieves King T’Challa (Boseman’s character, who dies off-screen at the beginning of the sequel), her strength couldn’t be displayed as it once was. Gurira, who is also known for playing the role of Michonne on “The Walking Dead,” said that was for the best, as they wanted to free themselves of the “strong Black woman” obligation.

“That’s what we’ve been denied storytelling-wise in this world as a whole,” the American-Zimbabwean actor said. “We don’t get to show our complexity. We get put in a box: ‘You’re a strong, Black woman. Be strong. Shut up.’ But the idea of saying, ‘No, we’re going to fail and we’re going to be vulnerable and we’re going to be in pain.’ And those are things that we should be allowed to be. And to do that to Okoye, I think, was a very smart move of Ryan’s, because she is such a quintessential strong woman in some ways.”

For “I Run This,” Gurira talks about the lessons Boseman left for her, her own mourning mirroring Okoye’s, and the dreams she has for her career in television and film.

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" star Danai Gurira attends the film's European premiere at Cineworld Leicester Square on Nov. 3 in London.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” star Danai Gurira attends the film’s European premiere at Cineworld Leicester Square on Nov. 3 in London.
Lia Toby via Getty Images

This film has felt like a collective homegoing experience for us as viewers. Even being in the theater and having those moments of silence truly felt like we were all honoring Chadwick’s life. How has experiencing this on the other side of hearing what people have to say about the film impacted you?

I think there’s so much that Chadwick did teach us and leave us with, and the very powerful way that he was a leader and how he anchored others in his own groundedness. And hence his groundedness allowed for an openness. And he was such a great leader in that regard, in terms of how he took care of everybody else and you could go to him and receive help and advocacy and guidance, and all in the name of just storytelling, but also in the power of how much he loved the culture, how much he loved his people. And that was something that is so powerful to me. And so it was so clear. But he did it through discipline. He was such a disciplined person. He was very anchored in the work, how much he would live in the accent of T’Challa all day. Didn’t matter if he was shooting or not. He’d just be T’Challa all day. And just the beauty of how well he learned that accent.

His commitment and his discipline, also, in terms of how he worked physically, in terms of how he worked on the script, it was something so powerful ― and to know what he was grappling with now at the same time, it just leaves you with such a knowledge of how you must just apply everything you’ve got and do it for something bigger than yourself.

That will always be within me as a result of the time I’m thankful to have spent with him.

This film seemed so demanding. You’re not only dealing with the physical and mental requirement of having to do the training and preparation for this film, but also dealing with the additional mental toll that came with making this film while grieving. How were you able to find that balance to tap in mentally while doing such physically demanding moves?

Stepping back into Okoye does always feel new, because she is very physically demanding as a role. And the staff [Okoye wields], it’s very different from the sword [that Michonne uses], so it does feel brand-new, especially because every time it’s putting her in a new challenge. This time it was a new challenge and a different set of circumstances where things don’t initially go that well for her. And so that was a whole new thing to grapple with for her. I do think there’s a way that I anchor myself in the physical work, however, because it was such an intense process stepping back into this world.

I remember before we started shooting, I was in training boot camp and [Wright] had come into town. We spent the afternoon together and walking around my neighborhood in Atlanta that I grew up living in. And it was just very much like we knew we had to be there for each other in a whole new way to get through this process. And we were apprehensive going in. We didn’t know what this would be without him, and how we were going to make it ― and we knew we had to. We knew the task, but we didn’t know how.

It was really a day-by-day thing. There were days she was strong, there were days I was strong, so we had to just be there for each other. And that was also with everybody, and very much anchored of course also by Mama Angela [Bassett, who plays Queen Ramonda]. She was just an astounding glued adhesive for us all a lot. We had to lean on each other. There was no way you could just be like, “Oh, I’m good. I’m just hanging. I’m just going to do my job, go home. I’m good.” That didn’t exist. We were there for each other. We had to be. We had to express what we were going through.

With Ryan, too. Ryan was really great with talking you through whatever you were experiencing that day, the grief of it or the struggle of the day. And he was dealing with a lot himself, but he was very, very present for us. I think that was a massive part of how we were able to navigate it. It was being there for each other. And even the folks who were new, it’s like they knew, they understood the task, they understood the assignment. Dominique [Thorne, who plays Riri Williams] prayed over me one day. It was the day I needed it. There was so much, and it just felt like the spirit of Chadwick in so many ways that everyone was becoming a hero for each other. And honestly that is how we got through it.

One thing that I really appreciated about Okoye’s storyline in this film in particular is we see her fail and we see her fall down, and she has to learn how to get back up. And I think that the way that she took those challenges paralleled the feeling that many Black women have around not having space to fail, always having to be strong, always having to protect everyone else. What has portraying Okoye taught you, Danai?

Man. I mean, firstly, it means a lot to me to hear that. And I’ve heard that a couple times now from Black women, and it is something that is so true. We don’t allow ourselves that room, but the world doesn’t allow us that room either. And we don’t get to be vulnerable very easily, so we don’t expect to have a soft place to fall. The world doesn’t provide one, we don’t expect it. I’m thankful to be able to portray that in this character. And I think there’s more story to tell in there in the future.

Not just in terms of her recovery, because I think that we have more to tell there, but in terms of her own grief process too. The fact that we don’t see that as much as I think we could is something that I am thankful for. And I think we got to do that with her.

She also hasn’t even gone through her own process of grief. And I think that’s something we also deal with that comes with this strong Black woman trope that we have to live under, and we’re expected to be all the time. We’re human. And the thing I love about this story and about these women is that we get to see their complexity.

Actually, I realized afterwards, while we were doing press last month ― I realized, “Oh my God,” I was paralleling her because she was dealing with displacement and I was dealing with displacement and disorientation, and we are both control freaks. I was releasing control in terms of the things I was talking about, how we got through it. We had to lean on each other. And she had to release control because she could no longer be the head of the country underneath the queen.

There was just this parallel component of how I learned like, “Oh, there’s a new way to find once you let go of the ways you think things have to be.”

“We don’t allow ourselves that room, but the world doesn’t allow us that room either. And we don’t get to be vulnerable very easily, so we don’t expect to have a soft place to fall. The world doesn’t provide one, we don’t expect it.”

– Danai Gurira

Absolutely. And I think to that point, another way that we saw Okoye be able to breathe in her multifacetedness in this film. And we saw glimpses of her witty commentary in “Avengers” and the first “Black Panther.” How did you lean into Okoye to make room for some joy on and off camera while working on “Wakanda Forever”?

It was fun. I think the whole scene of the stuff with Riri is where we really got to play around. And there was a lot of improvisation that went down in that scene that Ryan kept that I was doing. And Tish was just cracking up the whole day, and it was just great to see her crack up. She’d been through a lot, and she came back really strong after the accident, but it was one of the first things we shot after she came back from the accident. [Wright was seriously injured last summer while filming a motorcycle chase sequence for “Wakanda Forever.”]

But I do think that is a big part of who Okoye is. Ryan had come up with this idea about covering up her tattoo with makeup, but Shuri uses a shade more for her than for Okoye. And we all constructed that together. At first I was like, “Wait, Okoye isn’t the butt of things like this.” But this is such a funny component of who she could be, so then I leaned into it and found more stuff in it. We had some really fun days. We had fun days even when we were out looking at Riri for the first time. And those were our shades we’re wearing. And Ryan’s like, “They look good in those shades. Just leave them in them shades.” And we were like, “Really?”

We had a lot of fun that way. And I think that that was very important, to find that and to be in those times. It was the spirit of the first film, and so it was great to bring that forth. And there were appropriate moments. That joy was very important to the set.

As we move forward in Wakanda and in this franchise, what do you want to see from Okoye’s story?

I think there’s so much to tell. We shoot a lot for these movies and then it’s cut into what it’s cut into. But there’s alternate ways Okoye’s arc goes in this movie that I think we could explore, in future ways that show the themes we’ve been talking about in this conversation ― explored I think in very rich ways and in ways that are very undertapped in terms of seeing a strong Black woman in recovery.

And I think there’s a lot to find in who she can become and where she can go now because she’s not the general. And what’s she going to be?

Similar question for you as Danai: What do you want to see, not even in relation to this franchise, but in career, in life? What do you want for Danai? What is your dream as you continue to work and to live?

Well, I think I have to become the head of all studios in order for things to go really how I want them to go. No, but I’m kidding. But I think the key thing is for me is, I’m in an overall deal with ABC Signature. I’ve been creating television for a while and I’m currently writing something also for the big screen. The stories I want to tell are Black stories, they’re stories of the diaspora.

I think also my key focus is bringing African stories into the mainstream in various ways, innumerable ways, because as they should be. And so that’s been a key thing I want to see, and the key thing I’ve been pushing for. That was my key focus as a playwright. And I guess I can say I’m thankful and I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do with theater in terms of that ambition. And now I have that ambition for TV and film.

And it’s a journey. But there’s a lot I’m doing that I don’t talk about, because I don’t like to talk about things as they incubate. I want to give them that time. But at the end of the day, it’s that push through to the finish line where something lives and all can see it. And that’s that place I’m in, and I’m in the labor pains. Let’s put it that way.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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