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Danai Gurira: That Magic Moment

Danai Gurira Embraces Her Black Girl Mojo and Uses Her Power to Boost Those Who Follow

EBONY Magazine June 2018

To adequately define the meaning of Black Girl Magic, you’d need to begin by identifying its essential ingredients. You’d start with a full cup of confidence and wisdom, found in the cupboard of the ancestors who came before us. Then you’d add a quarter cup of humility, a tablespoon of self-deprecation, a pint of commitment and a pinch of sass to punch up the flavor. These exacting measurements would likely result in something rather delectable and desirable.

But here’s the thing: The women and men whose shoulders we stand upon today rarely used measuring cups. And they were always tweaking the recipes, making them even more magical. If we were to unpeel the outer layers of award-winning playwright and actress Danai Gurira, we’d find that she’s the perfectly imperfect blend of all the above.

At 40, Gurira, best known for her starring roles in Black Panther—the blockbuster Marvel film that shattered just about every cinematic record in history for a comic book film—the Avengers franchise and AMC’s The Walking Dead, has embarked on one long and magically successful journey over the past two years. In addition to the films that have helped her move up the Hollywood alphabet ladder, Gurira’s award-winning plays—In Continuum, The Convert and Eclipsed—have set her apart from her peers. Eclipsed, which premiered on Broadway in 2016, was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning one for costume design.

And when you add all these accomplishments to her social activism and two upcoming projects involving a feature film with Jessica Chastain, and partnering with Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o to adapt Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah for TV, it is very likely she’ll see her name in headlines for years to come. Fame, however, not only takes a back seat to the work—it’s not even allowed in the car.

Rather, the Iowa-born, Zimbabwe-reared multihyphenate realizes that her relevance will be in the stories she and her sister scribes tell and not the stories that are written about them.

“I think excellence is one of the best forms of building your reputation,” Gurira says in between photo shoots on a sunny Good Friday afternoon in Hollywood. “When we are able to really inspire our greatest minds so that their stories are told—and their stories must be told in totality—then we are going to have so much more of a beautiful landscape. To me, that is exciting.”

It’s clear from the time Gurira walks into the room that she is adamant about controlling her own destiny. Dressed exquisitely in shiny silver loafers, black leather leggings, Maisie turtleneck, a grey wrap and a brown wide-brimmed hat, you get the impression that she was born with the confidence she exudes as she strolls into a rather dreary-looking makeshift dressing room on the lower end of Hollywood. Her doe-shaped eyes twinkle a bit as she greets people she knows before slipping into one of the haphazardly placed director’s chairs. And although she’s been through several wardrobe changes since midmorning, she’s showing no signs of weariness.

Two-a-days are proof positive that you’ve arrived. Yet even though Gurira doesn’t seem as if she’s caught up in all that, she must know she’s inhaling some rarified air these days. When Maxwell declares in the New York Post that he wants to “wine and dine” you, it’s a sign. When everyone is curious about your friendship with Nyong’o, her Black Panther co-star, that’s another clue. And when you don’t understand why people are making a big deal out of your 40th birthday, it’s because you’re no longer riding shotgun in the fast lane. You are driving the bus.

It’s clear that Gurira’s psychology degree from Macalester College was well-earned. She’s very adept at controlling how much she’s willing to spill. We’ll call her graciously guarded. Getting to her core was often challenging, but it was rather fun. When she didn’t understand a question, she said so. When she didn’t want to engage in some of the more frivolous questions, she politely deflected. And she took a pregnant pause when she needed. That’s what good writers do. That’s what smart people with psych degrees do as well. Gurira is very cognizant of how words can be manipulated and misconstrued. For her, comprehension is the architect of truth and transparency.

Having grown up in two very diverse cultures has given Gurira a unique global perspective that definitely informs her work. We might assume she is strong because she was brave enough to shave her head for her role as Okoye, the Wakandan general, in Black Panther. And because she’s been known to slay zombies on The Walking Dead, there’s a natural assumption that she is a fearless badass. As for her strength, Gurira, the youngest of four, is not quite sure where that comes from.

“Sometimes you just have to hear people say it,” the actress says after some soft giggles. “I’m just being me. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m such a strong person!’ I just don’t think about it. People have to tell me that’s what they’re receiving from me. I think I was very fortunate in how I was raised by parents who facilitated that. Whatever I was meant to be, they didn’t get in the way of it. They’re academics, and they’re very much about discovering your thing—discovering your greatness—whatever that might be. Work hard as heck and get a degree—preferably two—but discover your thing. We’re not going to tell you what it is.”

That advice made her mentally tough, but the roles of Okoye (the character she plays in Black Panther and The Avengers) and Michonne (The Walking Dead) have prepared her to throw down—just in case.

“Hmmm, I’ve never had to kick somebody’s ass … I don’t know! But I think those two ladies have definitely taught me some things—if needed. I hope it’s never needed, but if needed …”

Hopefully, Gurira won’t need to defend herself physically, but she’s armed with that type of mental toughness that could put her on the winning side of any battle, including the ones that women—particularly women of color—face in the entertainment industry. As a quadruple threat—A-list actress, writer, producer and activist—Gurira is most passionate when talking about her career path and future. Like all woke artists, she wants to continue to write, produce and star in projects that inspire and enlighten. That’s not always easy—particularly since humans need to eat—but given the success of Black Panther and Eclipsed, which received a 2016 Tony Award nomination for best play, as well as her unrelenting desire to be one of the leading architects of the creative cultural narrative on diversity and inclusion, it shouldn’t be a problem.

In fact, it’s her calling.

“I definitely want to get more African stories on the screen—big and small—[it’s] very important to me,” Gurira says. “That is definitely something that is on my heart to see through. I have to see it through. That’s a big thing right in front of me that I feel very called to complete and to get into the full process of, which I am now in.”

Gurira also feels that women, particularly women of color, in the entertainment industry must seize the time. Though the door to opportunities is not fully open, there is room for more than one to step through at any given time.

“I think it’s completely necessary,” Gurira says emphatically. “There’s never been a time when it wasn’t necessary that we put our voices out there and amplify our point of view. There’s more visibility now and more access than there was before. It’s definitely a time to sow and reap and harvest as much as possible. No one can do it for us.”

Given her recent career trajectory, Gurira will be able to spread the wealth. That, too, is a responsibility she holds dear. And she’s grateful for the opportunities that await people who look like her, thanks in part to the success of Black Panther, a film that grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and is one of the top 15 movie moneymakers of all time.

“I think one of the most important things about Panther, one of the most beautiful things about what I witnessed and the response that I received was that there was a lot of beauty in the way it resonated across the world. But I think one of the things that’s been really important to me is that there’s been a reclamation—like a reclaiming that people are doing [things]; of who they are and what they’re doing and what their roots are. It’s a celebration and an understanding that our roots deserve respect. Hopefully, that compels and inspires the great artistic minds that we have in the African diaspora—that it inspires them to know that there are stories they must tell. When we can do that, we are going to have so much more of a beautiful landscape of our own representation. That, to me, is exciting.”

Gurira’s own roots are deeply entrenched in the art of storytelling. Although she was born in rural Grinnell, Iowa, her African parents returned to Zimbabwe when she was just 5. She was “that kid”—the one imitating American TV stars and writing stories from her own unique prepubescent point of view. After she returned to America to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she majored in psychology, and later received her MFA from New York University’s famed Tisch School of the Arts, Gurira began to define her own voice. Most of the stories she wrote chronicled the African female perspective.

Staying true to herself and her vision has served Gurira well. Although she’s very accomplished, for her, the awards and recognition don’t necessarily validate the work. Gurira sees herself as an opportunist, of sorts. She uses her talents to provide opportunities for others. Nyong’o, whom Gurira met nearly 12 years ago, made her Broadway debut in Eclipsed two years ago and was nominated for a Tony. The play, about four Liberian women who share one husband during the second Liberian Civil War, featured four Black actresses, including Akosua Busia (Nettie in The Color Purple), was directed by a Black woman (Liesl Tommy) and written by another (Gurira).

“I’ve been pretty unapologetic and blatant about it,” Gurira says with a slight chuckle. “It’s a perspective I grew up not seeing given center stage—ever. I grew up around all African women, and I was like, ‘Where are the stories that represent this sector of society?’ And I just rejected the lie that people can’t absorb things from that perspective—whatever lies that are out there. From quite a young age, I rejected that. It’s always been my passion.”

It appears that any time she teams with her friend Nyong’o, it’s a win-win.

“There’s something about our mission that really aligns,” Gurira says. “We both really want to tell the same type of story, and we have complementary abilities. She loves to act, I love to write and sometimes I love to act, too [laughs]! We get each other, and we understand we have the same goals. We find each other funny, and we also enjoy each other’s company. It’s all those things that friends have. We learn from each other, and that’s what I think is really, really great. I learned a lot from being around her—the way she handles situations—and the way her mind works under pressure. I find that fascinating and brilliant. I just love letting her handle something [laughs]. She’s a very courageous person, and I love that about her.”

When she’s not writing, acting or hanging with her friends, Gurira is down for the cause. On the day of our interview, WildAid, an organization that brings awareness to the atrocities of poaching of African elephants, was shooting an ad with Gurira. She’s very passionate about wildlife, having grown up in a country that cherishes them.

“I think our wildlife are stunning, and they are a gift,” Gurira says. “I think it’s deeply important that they are protected. I find that one of my favorite things is to spend time in the presence of a lion, an elephant, a rhinoceros, a hippo. You spot them, and they’re right there outside your car. I mean, there’s kind of nothing more majestic. And nothing that reminds you more of your mortality [laughs]. I find it my responsibility being someone of Zimbabwean heritage to preserve that beauty that we have.”

She’s also an advocate for women and girls in developing nations and is even using her platform to sponsor young African arts students at American universities. One of the students supported by her nonprofit is an MFA candidate at the University of Southern California.

Gurira is most fulfilled, however, when she can help little girls who look like her. Whenever she’s in a rut or working through a tough scene, she thinks of the young women back home in Africa who may not realize that they, too, have permission to dream.

“I think of those girls when I kind of beat myself up,” she says. “I think of the little girl in Liberia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe or the Congo who will never have the opportunity I’m standing in. She looks just like me, but she’ll never stand in these shoes. It’s not right. The least I can do is do my best for her. So that, that motivates me. That gets me out of my own way when I remember it’s not about me.”

Conversely, the #MeToo movement is about her and her peers—particularly her sister thespians. Although most of the women who have lodged accusations against some of the entertainment industry’s most notable men have been White, Gurira feels it’s less about race than it is about the end result.

“As with every movement there are complications,” she says. “But the point is we’ve got to get to the point where we are consistently making it clear what is not acceptable and what is. That is the core focus. I hope we all continue to evolve toward understanding the delineations and experience. I think of the Civil Rights Movement and the phrase ‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’ Keeping our eyes on the prize and realizing that this moment must continue to be a movement—that to me is extremely important.”

But what’s even more imperative for Gurira is embracing her own bliss.

“I feel called,” she says. “I feel like everything I do, everything—the blessings that I’ve received—are not necessarily for me. They’re for me to sturdy up my shoulders for other girls to stand on like I stand on other people’s shoulders. So it’s not about me trying to be something; it’s more about what am I doing to make sure that the baton is passed in a way that really allows others to excel.”

Now that’s Black Girl Magic at its best.

Miki Turner is an award-winning photojournalist, producer and author who’s spent her career working in print, television, radio and new media. She has held positions at NFL Network, JET magazine, ESPN, MSNBC.com, AOL.com, BET and several newspapers.

“It’s a celebration and an understanding that our roots deserve respect.”

Photography: Dennis Leupold, Creative Direction: Courtney Walter, Photo Production: Bianca Grey, Styling: Thomas Carter Phillips, Makeup: Tym B, Hair: Vernon Scott, Nails: Tracy Clemens

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