23 February 2018

Zimbabwe: Danai Gurira - the Breakthrough

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Danai Gurira has totally broken through. That is what matters the most to me as regards the hit movie Black Panther. Of course, it also matters to me that a pan-African cast and director have fronted a blockbuster movie which cost a reported US$200 million to create. To date, in North America, Disney's Black Panther has hogged the top spot at the box office and garnered US$218 million. Global receipts will most likely see the movie breaking the bank.

Her role in the runaway movie as Okoye, leader of the female warrior army, the Dora Milaje that protect the Wakanda king, is testament to Gurira's new plateu of success as a Hollywood action girl. They do appear to be type-casting her as a swashbuckling martial combat actress. She also stars, incidentally, in the zombie franchise Walking Dead in which she regularly slays zombies with her sword.

Plot

The Black Panther is about a fictional kingdom called Wakanda located in Africa. The people have a policy of maintaining secrecy from the world.

Subsequent to his father's death, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to Wakanda to assume his place as king, but first he must rise to meet challengers putting the fate of the kingdom and whole world at risk. The young king must deal with betrayal and danger. He must rally his allies and unleash the full force of the Black Panther to vanquish opposition.

Significantly, T'Challa is saved by the love of a woman- Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong'o).

Important history lesson

The film's super hero character, played by Boseman, was created in 1966 by Marvel's Stan Lee and James Kirby in the same year the Black Nationalist radical party of the same name was formed.

The title of the movie is somewhat an allusion to the Black Panther party of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in the Sixties. The party was formed in Oakland in 1966 in the aftermath of Malcom X's assasination as the Black Panther Party for Self Defence initially to monitor police activities in black neighbourhoods.

Incidentally, the opening scenes of the movie are set in Oakland, United States, in 1992. Latterly, the party followed a Marxist ideology and started a 10-point programme to assist depressed black communities across America. One must appreciate the socio-cultural context of the civil rights era in the United States in which blacks were disenfranchised and brutalised.

The party was created as an outcrop of the larger Black Power movement which espoused black power, dignity and black self-determination (which is the Black Panther movie's over arching theme in my view).

Reaction

Of course, the US government put the party on blast under a counter-intelligence programme called COINTELPRO. In 1969 the party was declared a communist party and enemy of the state whilst the then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover referred to the party as "one of the greatest threats to the nation's internal security".

Along with the US government's destabilisation of the party, intercenine violence helped put paid to the party, leading to its dissolving in 1982. Readers will also remember some of the party's prominent members such as Stokely Carmichael who married Miriam Makeba and fled to Guinea.

Others such as Afeni Shakur (hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur's mother) who at age 22 was arrested and charged alongside 21 others with conspiracy to bomb New York as a member of the Black Panther party in 1969.

She was pregnant with Tupac as she mounted her own defence, leading to her acquittal in 1971. Gurira acted and starred in All Eyez on Me, a film based on Afeni Shakur's life with her son Tupac.

Box office record broken

Black Panther is doing well and is ranking behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jurassic World and Marvel's The Avengers rank for all-time opening weekends at the box office. The Afro-futuristic film was directed by 31-year-old Ryan Coogler and it has also received the honor of the fifth largest three-day domestic opening in history, according to media reports.

Danai Gurira profile

Danai Jekesai Gurira was born in Grinnell, US, in 1978 to Zimbabwean immigrants Josephine Gurira, a librarian, and Roger, a chemistry lecturer.

Danai was educated at Dominican Convent High School. Later she attained a Master's in Fine Arts specialising in acting from New York University's Tisch School of Arts.

Her creative, acting and screen accolades include writing and performing in the off-Broadway play In the Continuum. This play led to the Obie Award, Helen Hayes Award and Outer Critics Circle Award. Her stage work straddles critically acclaimed plays such as Come and Gone, Familiar, and self-penned Eclipsed. Her first movie role was in 2007's The Visitor and garnered her Best Supporting Actress at the Method Fest Film Festival. Danai has given powerful performances in several movies such as Mother of George, All Eyez on Me and Avengers: Infinity War.

Television role

Danai's prominence as an actress has gained traction in major televisison franchises such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order and Lie to Me.

It is, however, in the famous television series The Walking Dead that she has emerged as one of Hollywood's leading black thespians along with Kenyan-Mexican Nyong'o. The two are epitomes of black excellence and their cureent success is a credit to the educational bases their parents provided for them.

Lupita is a Yale alumnus. The intelligence of these actresses is evident in the roles they have chosen to portray.

Importance of the film

The movie is being lauded for its positive representation of blacks. The usual stereotype of blacks in movies is deplorable: black women as loud-mouthed women of easy virtue and black men as violent gang bangers and pimps. The caricatures of blacks in movies chime with racist narratives. Even the very portrayal of Africa as a place of high tech is largely pure fantasy.

But it is psychologically uplifting to see a teenage black girl as a tech geek and the movie is somewhat reflective of an Africa which is rarely seen by the wider world.

Stories such as the one about Nust-eduacted Takunda Chingonzo, who Forbes magazine listed as one of Africa's tech billionaires of the future, rarely make headlines in mainstream media. The dominant imagery in popular culture of Africa is one of blacks as mere entertainers and sportspersons, if it is not a starving child in Somalia.

Parting shot

Black Panther evokes the theme of ambivalence in the relationship between Africans and African-Americans, black self-determination and pride. Other themes that resonate with traditional African beliefs include magical realism, reverence for and communication with ancestors and community (ubuntu).

I do not believe that the dead can communicate with the living. But the belief is embedded in the African psyche. What I found to be the film's pre-eminent quality was its portrayal of men and women. The women in the film are strong, loyal, and intelligent and courageous.The king is in fact redeemed by women in the movie. The men are portrayed as treacherous. I did not like this aspect.

Perhaps that was the director's unwitting rebuke to men in general. The US is a place in which most black households are headed by females anyway. But that is largely in part due to the "machinery" of American society. Black men are an endangered species. Most are chewed up by the prison industrial complex which needs permanent guests.

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