When Black Panther star Danai Gurira was five-years-old, her parents moved her from Grinnell, Iowa to their homeland of Harare, Zimbabwe – a bustling, urban city over two-and-a-half-thousand times bigger than the rural former factory town where she was born. She looked like a local girl, but spoke like a kid from the Midwestern plains. “An American accent isn’t unusual,” Gurira once said in an interview with Zimbabwe Standard, “but sometimes from somebody who looks like me.”
Later, her high school theatre friends would give her the name “Megaphone” because she had an American girl’s courage to speak her mind. “My voice was really loud,” she recalls, “But no one made fun of my accent. They were so used to it from movies.” Like other developing African countries, Zimbabwe wasn’t excluded from Trump’s racist shithole slander – and if such insults ever reached Gurira’s General Okoye, the closest advisor of Panther’s regent-turned-costumed Avenger and guardian of his secret crushes, she might be tempted to grab a retractable spear.
One glimpse of her taut, dignified and tougher-than-leather character leading Wakanda’s all-female special forces squad known as the Dora Milaje – or as one character gapes, “some Grace Jones-looking chicks – and anyone who wants to stay alive in the 21st Century will quickly realise they’ve undervalued Africa at their own peril. Ryan Coogler’s epic, game changing superhero blockbuster may revolve around the adventures of King T’Challa and his efforts to protect his hidden, technologically-savvy homeland while adapting to the new responsibility of wearing the crown. But the 39-year-old Gurira as Okoye is the movie’s secret weapon – steady, strong, the kind of anchoring presence that can seem fierce one second and, courtesy of a skeptical side-eye glance, be terrifically funny the next.
She commands attention from the first scene: a broad-shouldered protector in lotus position waiting to attack. And after rescuing a caravan of kidnapped Nigerian girls, she’s the one who gets what may be the movie’s most breathtaking cinematic hero shots: a warrior lit from behind and rimmed in gold. But Black Panther isn’t Gurira’s first on-screen show of badassery. In AMC’s post-apocalyptic horror TV series The Walking Dead, Gurira is cast in the show’s second season as Michonne, a dreadlocked, stern-faced character who mercilessly slays zombies with a katana. The show wrapped up season 8 last month, and Michonne, over the course of its turbulent seasons, has grown into a remarkable and likeable character.
By herself, Gurira stays physically fit through Pilates and cross training, hence the extraordinary mobility and skill she brings to her action roles in movies. In Marvel’s just-released Avengers: Infinity War, Gurira was, once again, enjoyable to watch in Dora Milaje gear. Her bald look is readily a cinema aesthetic, but it’s a little disappointing that she hasn’t attracted similar action roles, despite her impressive outing in the critically acclaimed Black Panther. This could be more of an artistic decision, and how she feels personally drawn to a script. Already, her Black Panther castmate Lupita Nyong’o has been tied to two upcoming action movies, the remake of John Woo’s 1989 film The Killer and the female-centric spy thriller 355.
In Hollywood, action movies with a female lead are popular, but not all feature actresses who have convincingly established themselves in the genre. For example, Charlize Theron’s career has revolved around a number of action flicks, from 2005’s Æon Flux to 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Her credentials are so good that she was touted as the female successor to Daniel Craig’s James Bond. In March, Marvel announced a three-part Dora Milaje comic spin off, to be written by acclaimed, Nigerian-American sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor. It’s a small step towards portraying Okoye in all her deserved independence, and possibly a standalone Marvel film of her own?
Gurira could be a bonafide black female action-movie star. She can utilise wigs as a weapon and daringly skate on torn doors of automobiles. She can also turn up the sexy, cinema’s oldest trick, and it won’t be as disastrously tepid as Halle Berry’s Catwoman.