Danai Gurira: From Zimbabwe to ‘Wakanda’ to ‘The Walking Dead’

You may know her as Okoye, general of the Dora Milaje in Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame – three of the highest-grossing films of all time. But for millions of fans, Danai Gurira will always be the katana-wielding Michonne in The Walking Dead, all 10 seasons of which are now available to binge on Showmax.

Based on Robert Kirkman’s hit comics, The Walking Dead is the definitive zombie show, having won 78 awards globally, including Emmys, People’s Choice and Critics Choice awards. The Hollywood Reporter calls it “one of the modern television era’s biggest hits.”

Among other awards, The Walking Dead was nominated as Best Horror Series at both the Critics Choice Super Awards and The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films in 2021. 

Season 10 has an 83% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the consensus is, “A few changes in front of and behind the camera allow The Walking Dead to create space for compelling new stories and some seriously scary new adversaries.” The series remains high on the Most Popular TV list on IMDb, where it has an 8.2/10 score.

Danai returns opposite Norman Reedus in their People’s Choice-nominated roles as Michonne and Daryl, as does Melissa McBride in her Critics Choice-nominated role as Carol. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also still alive as Negan, a role that won him MTV and Critics Choice awards, but the bigger threat this season is two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (HarlotsIn AmericaMinority Report) as Alpha, the leader of the Whisperers, who wear the skins of zombies, and live among them… Morton was nominated for a 2021 Critics Choice Super Award for Best Villain for the role.

Here are eight things to know about Danai: 

She’s one of the few to survive eight seasons of The Walking Dead

If you still use Sean Bean in Game of Thrones S1 as your ultimate example of ‘How could they kill our favourite character?’ then you haven’t been watching The Walking Dead, where the swarming undead are often far less dangerous than the remaining living. Michonne has survived eight seasons of The Walking Dead: only three other cast members can claim the same or better: Norman Reedus (Daryl), Melissa McBride (Carol) and Lauren Cohan (Maggie).  

She’s Zimbabwean-American, but would choose Iowa if there was a zombie apocalypse

Danai was born in Grinnell, Iowa, to Zimbabweans Josephine and Roger Gurira. When she was five, the family moved back to post-independence Zimbabwe, where she grew up in the capital, Harare. Gurira later returned to the United States, where she studied social psychology at Macalester College, receiving her Masters of Fine Arts from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She told Stephen Colbert that if she had to choose between Iowa or Harare during a zombie apocalypse, she’d pick Grinnell. “Where I was born was so underpopulated, it was such a tiny town, I think it might be my best bet. [There] was a lot of corn – I could hide in the corn stalks.” 

Danai smiles a lot more than Michonne

Michonne doesn’t smile much on The Walking Dead. When Conan pointed out that Danai smiles a lot more in real life, she agreed. “I think I have a lot more to smile about. Playing her actually makes me smile more, because I can go home and turn on the faucet and hot water comes out, and there’s food in my fridge, and my car has gas and I know how to get more gas.” 

Which is part of why The Walking Dead had a surge of interest at the start of the pandemic, landing on Parrot Analytics’ list of the 10 most streamed shows in the first two months of the pandemic. There’s something strangely uplifting about watching the show and realising that, even during a pandemic, things can get so much worse, and that people will still want to keep fighting to stay alive. 

Spoiler alert – She’s leaving The Walking Dead this season

No, we’re not saying whether she’s leaving the show dead or alive. But we will say Rick Grimes may not be dead after all, since there are plans for him to headline a movie spinoff. So we live in hope for a world where cinemas actually open again, so ‘Richonne’ may live on on the big screen…

The Walking Dead itself will end in Season 11, although there are plans for an anthology series, Tales of The Walking Dead, and for a Daryl Dixon-Carol Peletier series starring Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride. 

Danai was Tupac Shakur’s mother

Not really – just on film. Danai was nominated for an NAACP Image Award as Tupac Shakur’s mother in All Eyez on Me. Other memorable roles include her Black Reel-winning performance as Nigerian-American Adenike in Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George and as Senegalese immigrant Zainab in the Oscar-nominated The Visitor

She’s an activist at heart

Remember when Michonne told Carl, “I can’t stop you, but you can’t stop me from helping you”? 

Danai seems to have a similar attitude in real life. She’s the founder of LOGpledge.org (Love Our Girls), an awareness-building campaign focused on the plights of women and girls around the globe. She serves as an ambassador for Bono’s ONE campaign and, in December 2018, she was named a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, supporting its mandate of gender equality and women’s rights. She’s also the co-founder of Almasi Arts, which works to professionalise the dramatic arts industry in Zimbabwe through education, facilitation and collaboration with professional American dramatic artists and artistic institutions. 

She’s a Tony-nominated playwright 

Danai is also the playwright of Eclipsed, which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and won Best Costume Design. Set in war-torn Liberia, Eclipsed starred Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o, among others, and was directed by South African Liesl Tommy – becoming the first play to premiere on Broadway with an all-female and all-Black cast and creative team. Danai has also won the Sam Norkin Award, a Whiting Award, and an Obie Award, among other theatre honours. 

She’s focused on telling more stories from the perspective of African women

When her departure from The Walking Dead was announced last year, it was attributed to her work adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah into an HBO Max miniseries, which she would be the showrunner of. But Americanah sadly became another casualty of the pandemic, after first being delayed and then canceled when Lupita Nyong’o, who was to executive produce and star as Ifemelu, dropped out over the subsequent scheduling conflicts. 

Danai is now working on an exclusive two-year deal to develop, write and produce projects for ABC Studios. “From Zimbabwe to Wakanda to Broadway, there is no one like Danai Gurira,” said Jonnie Davis, president of ABC Studios.

“Born into this world as an African girl, I never understood the absence of voices and people who were similar to me,” Danai told Entertainment Weekly. “It never made sense to me that I couldn’t see that representation. The very massive magnitude of content you get in television and film, and yet there was this almost absolute absence of the stories of women from the continent and of the continent. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t accept any ideas as to why it wasn’t there. It just needed to be there.”

Her solution? “It just has to happen, and I guess I’ll have to do it.”

Watch the trailer:
https://youtu.be/Xf3-F7AcXDc

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