Danai Gurira, the US-based Zimbabwean actress whom most people back home are proud of after she featured in a blockbuster movie — Black Panther that has made waves in Hollywood with its portrayal of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, is certainly putting “yellow bones” out of fashion as she keeps inspiring “black” people to be proud of their skin.
Over the years, those with dark skin have been looking down upon themselves as they are not regarded as beautiful by society. This has seen many ladies in Zimbabwe and Africa at large, resorting to bleaching their skin so as to be light skinned in order for men to consider them beautiful.
This, however, may just start changing as the Black Panther film that has a black cast which successfully portrayed “black people” and their culture in a positive way, has united Africans and made them proud of their continent as well as being “black”. The use of African attires on the movie also made people proud to be African. So many Black Panther challenges have been initiated with people mimicking the characters and celebrating Africans.
Ever since the release of the movie, a lot of attention has been on Gurira who played Okoye, a female warrior whose duty was to protect the king of Wakanda, T’Challa. She has been interviewed by a series of TV stations all wanting to know more about her bold character and acting career.
Also, she was recently honoured with an Essence Black Women in Hollywood award. Reflecting on her life journey, growing up as a black child, Gurira said she was never confident in her skin until she was told by another black woman that she was beautiful when she was nine years old.
“It happened for the first time when I was nine years old in Zimbabwe where I was raised. I’d been asked to participate in a fashion show for some Americans who had come into town. We were to wear African print and exhibit our attires at the event.
“My mother used some old fabric that had been sitting in her house for as long as I could remember and made a dress that fitted me very well,” Gurira told attendees who were at the Essence awards.
“We did our show and walked about on a stage and afterwards lingered about, none of us sure about how to interact with the Americans. When I received that compliment, I remember being surprised by it, but I realised it was something I’d always cherish.
“A stunning brown skin woman had taken my face in her hands and looked at me observing with deep appreciation. I stood still and she held my face and looked me deep in the eye and told me I was beautiful. It went straight into my soul and left an indelible imprint.
“I had to consider the idea that it might just be true. The majestic woman was Susan L Tailor, the long time editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. This is where I learnt that black girls are beautiful and the most edifying source to hear that from is another sister,” narrated Gurira.
On her role on Black Panther, Gurira said: “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. I know, being a black woman who’s from Zimbabwe and from the United States, I’ve yearned for this type of imagery.
“There’s something about the pride that Wakanda shows — African pride, black pride, pride of your people, of your culture. That, I think, is something people have really attached to.”
A friend she made while studying theatre in America also narrated how passionate Gurira was about acting saying her role on Black Panther was befitting.
He, however, stated that Gurira’s journey had not been a rosy one as she went for years without a breakthrough in the arts industry, though she never gave up.
“At the beginning of my third year at Macalester College (in Minnesota, USA), a young woman from Zimbabwe arrived with the new crop of international students. She was very talkative, animated, extremely opinionated, and passionate about everything African.
“We argued about a lot of things and immediately struck a friendship. She was very passionate about theatre and kept acting in plays on campus. I attended a few of her early performances, which didn’t impress me much. In fact, on one occasion, I walked out of a play she was in because I couldn’t understand the weird plot and thought my time would be better spent on some homework,” her friend Fred Swaniker wrote on his Facebook wall.
Gurira, being the passionate woman she is, did not give up on her dreams despite her friend’s attempts to have her study a more “serious” course as he was convinced Africans had no future in the American arts scene.
“She eventually decided to major in theatre, something I vehemently advised her against. I told her that it was an absolute waste of time, and that she should study a ‘real’ subject like economics (as I was doing). I told her she would go the way of other ‘starving artistes’ once she graduated — unemployed with nothing but dashed dreams. As far as I knew, Africans just did not have careers in the arts.
“After I graduated from college, I started my jet-setting career as a McKinsey consultant, while my poor “little sister” continued down her doomed path.
Why didn’t she listen to me, I wondered? Couldn’t she see this was the path to unemployment? The following year, she graduated with her degree in theatre and moved to New York to study a Master’s degree in theatre and to try acting off Broadway.
“We loosely stayed in touch. Then, four years later, I was flipping through TV channels in my hotel room on a business trip in New York. Who, to my major surprise, did I see playing a minor role in an episode of Law and Order, than this woman? She had actually found a somewhat respectable job! I called her, and we went out to dinner to catch up. She filled me in on the play she had just written, about a woman in South Africa who was living with HIV/Aids, and which would soon start running in New York.”
From there, Swaniker said Gurira’s career kept rising.
“Her first play went on a world tour. Her second play won many awards. Next, she began acting in small independent movies and she later landed a major role in one of the most popular TV series in the world.”
And two weeks ago, Gurira invited Swaniker to the Black Panther movie premiere in Johannesburg as her VIP guest. This time, he did not walk away and instead apologised to her for not believing in her potential.
“I watched with pride as she came on stage for a brief interview before we watched the movie. This ‘little sister’ of mine, whose acting career I didn’t believe in 22 years ago had acted in one of the most successful movies of all time — Black Panther.
“I’ve been apologising to her for the last 15 years for not believing in her all those years ago. The experience of not supporting Danai in her dream when we were younger taught me a very powerful lesson — one that has shaped my life’s work for the last 14 years: Every single one of us has unique passions, talents, and destinies. We should never belittle someone’s dreams as unrealistic, and should never try to define what someone else should be,” concluded Swaniker.