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Danai Gurira Talks Okoye: The “Very Fierce and Very Feminine” Defender of a Nation Never Colonized

Cropped poster of Danai Gurira as Okoye in Marvel's "Black Panther" Credit: Marvel and Disney

NPR recently spoke to Danai Gurira about her role as Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, in Marvel’s Black Panther. Gurira discussed what drew her to the project, the film’s portrayal of Africa and African narrative, and how she personally related to Okoye as a character.

From the first time she heard about Black Panther, Gurira said that she was attracted to “this astounding idea.” And once she sat down with director Ryan Coogler, she was sold. “What’s so very important to me, as an African woman and as a playwright who writes from the African perspective … [is] that an African narrative is treated with the respect and authenticity,” she said. “And sitting down with him [Coogler] and hearing his vision, I was just like, ‘Okay, this is special.'”

“I’m speaking Xhosa [in the film], you know?” she continued. “I just think that’s the coolest thing in the world. Xhosa … it’s the same language that is native to Nelson Mandela.” Gurira then explained that Marvel originally decided the Wakandans would speak Xhosa because John Kani, who plays King T’Chaka, is Xhosa himself.

“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,” Gurira said. “I know, being a black woman who’s from Zimbabwe and from the United States, I’ve yearned for this type of imagery … 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 who you are outside of any hegemonical influence.”

Gurira and host Michel Martin then discussed Okoye in particular. Though she is the fierce head of the Dora Milaje—”the guardians of the throne and the royal family, which makes them pretty much the guardians of the stability of the nation”— Okoye is also shown being gentle and sweet with her lover, W’Kabi. This wonderful “multi-dimensionality” was one of the many things that excited Gurira about the role.

“She was allowed to be very fierce and very feminine,” Gurira said. “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. 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 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.”

Black Panther is currently in theaters. What are you waiting for?

(via NPR; image: Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios)

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