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EXCLUSIVE: Danai Gurira on Significance of ‘Black Panther’ and Giving ‘Voice to the African Story’

by Stacy Lambe 1:30 PM PDT, September 23, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

On Saturday, at the 2016 Global Citizen Festival in Central Park, Danai Gurira will appear onstage to introduce a video that follows the lives of children living in the Nyumbani Village, a sustainable AIDS community in Nairobi, Kenya.

Born in the United States, the Walking Dead actress moved to Zimbabwe with her family after the country gained its independence. “I grew up in the '80s and '90s in one of the hardest-hit countries,” Gurira tells ET, explaining why it was important for her to co-write and narrate the video in partnership with Johnson & Johnson. “It really shaped my upbringing. Witnessing something like that as a young child definitely shaped how I saw the world and how I knew that ultimately one day, I would try to contribute.”

For Gurira, that meant bringing a face and life to an issue that she saw “presented largely as statistics,” she says, “but I knew it was something far more alive and connected to human beings.” Her first play, In the Continuum, about two women navigating the world after contracting AIDS, directly addressed the stories she saw firsthand. “From then on, my goal was always to support this issue in every way I could."

In the years since, Gurira has made a career of telling African stories onstage and onscreen. Her Tony-nominated Broadway play Eclipsed, starring Lupita Nyong’o, told the story of Liberian women struggling to survive the Second Liberian Civil War, while she’s starred in films like Mother of George and Restless City. “I probably look like a one-trick pony, but that really is my thing,” she says. “I want to give face and voice to the African story. When I came to the U.S., I couldn’t find it. And so, creating plays like Eclipsed or In the Continuum, they're all about truly eradicating the concept of the other.”

While Gurira’s enjoyed mainstream success as Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead, that mission continues on in the upcoming Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me, in which she’ll portray Afeni Shakur, and Marvel’s Black Panther. Growing up listening to the rapper’s music in Zimbabwe, Gurira says she was very affected by his death. “It was deeply heartbreaking,” she says. “He was a very complex man … I found it a deep honor and deeply surreal to step into his life and portray the person who was probably the most important to him, his mother.”

WATCH: Lupita Nyong'o Brings the True Story of 'Queen of Katwe' to Life on Screen

Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa and directed by Ryan Coogler, represents a significant moment for superhero films. Not only is Black Panther the first major black superhero to get his own film, but his story will shift the narrative to Africa, albeit in a fictionalized country. “I grew up seeing a lot of superheroes and they didn’t look like me and they certainly weren’t in Africa,” Gurira, who plays Okoye, head of bodyguards to Black Panther, says of the film. “I think that it is something great for girls who are like me growing up. Growing up in Africa, we were looking for images we couldn’t always find.”

And maintaining these strong images requires continued work. “I want to see stories coming from the black female perspective,” Gurira says, taking on the responsibility to put those out there, while calling on Hollywood “to make sure they’re paying attention. We’re at a far better moment than we were at in the past, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

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