If ever we had a bonafide big time movie star in the making, then Danai Gurira is it! Born in 1978 in Iowa in the US into a middle-class family of Zimbabwean expatriates who had left the country in 1964, she returned to Zimbabwe at age five in 1983.
State of the Art with Admire Kudita
Gurira attended Dominican Convent High School, one of the premier private schools for girls in Zimbabwe, before returning to the United States to attend college for her first major in psychology. Latterly she attended New York University for her Master in Fine Arts degree in acting at the institution’s Tisch School of Acting.
Feeling the globe
Today, Gurira must be feeling the globe as she landed a much-coveted role as Afeni Shakur, the mother to hip hop legend Tupac Shakur. The biopic is already scoring at the box office, having already raked in US$26 million in the first week of release. And for a movie that cost US$40 million to produce, that is definitely the path that Hollywood executives all dream of walking. On their way to the bank, Oscar award or not!
A long time coming
The movie produced by L.T Hutton, who was a Tupac confidant, took 20 years in the making. There were headbutts and knockdowns on the road to making this film a reality with the likes of director John Singleton (director of urban classic Boyz in the Hood) walking away from the project due to disagreements with Hutton who has been anchoring the project. Now that is a lifetime and a staggering indication of the level of commitment that is required to score in this dicey business. Thirty-eight-year-old Gurira would have been 18 years and still in Zimbabwe when the journey toward making the film would have started!
Producer’s favourite to play a panther
Regardless, reports indicate that Gurira was a firm favourite to play Afeni, who was a member of the Black Panther movement. For those in the dark, this organisation was an organisation that was committed to advancing black power in the US as a direct response to black disenfranchisement. They wore black. Black berets and black everything. It was the time of the “black is beautiful” mantra — complete with Afros and platform shoes. The mood was one of militancy.
Ultimately, the US government would round up 21 of the leaders of the organisation, of which hip hop legend Tupac’s mom Afeni was one of the leaders. Originating from North Carolina, born Alice Faye Williams, she changed her name to Afeni Shakur upon becoming a political activist and joining the Black Panther movement. Facing 300 years in prison, she successfully defended herself in the trial that lasted eight months while pregnant with Tupac, whose father Billy Garland was a fellow Panther and absent dad.
Like mother like son
Thus, Tupac began his life as the progeny of revolutionary parents and this biopic is as much about the mother as it is about the son. Tupac’s music and life mirror the walking contradiction of life in black America. On one hand, the system is dead set to profile you and derail your progress and on another hand you are expected to thrive and abide by the laws of a society that treats you like a nonentity. Despite the film’s rocky road to production, Gurira was always the ideal person to play Afeni.
Preparation meeting opportunity
Gurira’s suitability for the role is obvious, given her preparation as a theatre actress, as well as her role in the Walking Dead, a hit television series, in a leading role as Michonne. This character is garnering a cult following for the actress among fans of her swashbuckling and horse riding antics. Benny Boom, who is the film’s director, was thoroughly impressed with Gurira’s steely performance in the television series, enough to cast her as the late Afeni — a real-life woman of steel.
“Her ‘Walking Dead’ character, when she is on the screen, it’s always impactful for me,” he said.
“That was something I wanted to make sure we had with the Afeni role. I think she needs to be and should be an Oscar consideration; she brought a calibre of acting that we needed to legitimise this movie,” Boom is quoted as saying.
“I did everything that I could, a lot of research. I read Jasmine Guy’s book, Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary and thanked her in person many times for what she did. She did that thing that we need to do more and more as women, women of colour, and people of colour, and that is making sure our stories get written down. The information she got from Afeni was invaluable to knowing about her and her story and the story of a black woman going through that era. I also did a tonne of research into the Black Panthers and all these people who don’t get celebrated,” Boom is quoted in US press as saying.
Tupac Shakur was a well-read young man by the accounts of those close to him especially his mother. His lyrical depth and grasp of the struggles of black Americans in the country’s concrete jungle is peerless. Tupac died as he lived: by the sword. The artiste’s body of work epitomised surviving in America’s underbelly though it also carries the themes of violence and misogyny. Herein lies another contradiction: Tupac’s most celebrated song is the one he dedicated to his mother called Dear Momma Afeni Shakur. The song is an ode to a strong black woman raising two “bad boys” alone, while struggling with crack cocaine addiction.
“And even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen, mama”
Dear Momma — Tupac Shakur
The song was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress in 2010. In a statement she released in acknowledgement of the honour, Afeni expressed her feelings of being moved by her son’s tribute to her.
“It could have been any song, but I’m honoured they chose Dear Mama in particular. It is a song that spoke not just to me, but every mother that has been in that situation, and there have been millions of us. Tupac recognised our struggle, and he is still our hero.”
That Gurira has played the role of Tupac’s mother is a breakthrough moment for a Zimbabwean creative. Suddenly, the acting jobs are rolling in for her and she is well on her way to monetising her craft.
Gurira has officially signed on to join the super star-studded cast of Avengers: Infinity War! set for 2018 release.
As if that is not enough, she is poised to star in Black Panther as Okoye, alongside the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman, in the upcoming Marvel film. To date, the Tupac biopic has grossed over US$31 million, having been shown in over 2 741 theatres across the US alone. Lionsgate’s Codeblack Films/Morgan Creek’s is distributing the film.