Danai Gurira on ‘Wakanda Forever’s Box Office Power and Audience Embracing the Sequel

Black Panther continuation Wakanda forever keeps holding back everyone at the top of the box office. At the time of writing this piece, it has secured a fourth consecutive week as the biggest draw for audiences in movie theaters.

It sold another $17.6 million in tickets in North America this weekend. To date, the film has grossed $733 million at the worldwide box office, of which $393.7 million was made domestically.

I spoke to one of the film’s protagonists, Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, to discuss Wakanda forever coping with the industry’s box office battle, her response to audiences embracing the sequel, her character being a draw at Disneyland, and spin-off talk.

Simon Thompson: You can usually talk to me about these kinds of movies before they come out. Now you have the luxury of talking about it once you see everyone’s reactions and success. What was it like to watch Wakanda forever continue to attract a large audience?

Daniel Gurira: It’s everything. I remember at the end of the first movie telling Camille Friend, the movie’s fabulous hair designer, that it had been an intense gestation period, but I thought it was going to be a beautiful baby. That’s how it felt to me. Maybe you have a baby and you think it’s cute, but no one else. You do not know. There’s never the certainty of what it’s going to be like for everyone, but to experience this reaction is incredible, especially since we’ve given so much to it. It was a very intense, specific experience making this film after the loss of Chadwick Boseman, and we tried to honor him as much as possible. That was our whole focus and goal. The grieving process that our director and writer, Ryan Coogler, chose to create such a strong theme is rarely brought to screen in such a way in such a world. It allowed us to honor Chadwick very specifically. The response was so overwhelming and amazing, especially the experiences of people working through their grief by watching the movie and feeling like they had honored Chadwick, who was loved by so many around the world.

Thompson: It’s incredible to hear that.

Gurira: Women have also come to me telling me how they now go to the gym and want to get as fit as possible. They want to maximize their physical strength. A woman came up to me limping and said that after seeing me in the movie she was overworked (laughs), so please be careful. I could never have predicted that, but I am grateful if a woman wants to find her empowerment at any point. That feels like more than a win. Of course there are young girls affected by Shuri too, so there are so many ways we see reactions that are a blessing to us.

Thompson: This is 2022 and everyone has an opinion, especially on the internet. You mentioned how Wakanda forever honors Chadwick. There seems to be essentially universal agreement on how well you’ve all done that. It couldn’t have been easy to get that right.

Gurira: That’s what’s great about this team. We are a team of people pursuing authentic stories and trying to honor the things that are true for us. I believe that’s what you have to be as an artist. Ryan is the director and the writer, so it’s his vision and the themes he wants to bring to light on screen, and you have to rely on that. There has to be an anchoring component to pursuing a story of truth that you believe is right and a story you can stand behind. That is the risk we take as artists and as storytellers. Yes, anyone can have an opinion, but you know, I’m a playwright and I always say I should be able to look at it on opening night and say, ‘That’s what I meant and I can live with that. Whatever they write about it, whatever they say, that’s what I meant.’ That’s definitely what Ryan is aiming for as well, and I think we can look at that and feel that anchoring in that.

Thompson: A huge achievement for Wakanda forever is that it’s just one of the few movies this year that broke the box office trend and not only garnered significant audiences, but also had staying power.

Gurira: It feels very satisfying, but the reason why I am very grateful is mainly because of the people I work with. So is Ryan Coogler and how grateful I was to work with Chadwick, the amazing costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who is amazing, and the production designer Hannah Beachler; these women are incredible authors and artists. What makes each one remarkable is that what they pursue is so pure in its intent and clear vision. There are two things in our industry, right? There’s the algorithm and the truth. The algorithm can be based on data. It can be based on things that are not human in terms of what they bring in. There are also biases depending on who they collect their information from. Sometimes I see polls and I think, ‘I’ve never been asked for a poll in my life. Am I not there?’ Often the people who make the decisions don’t look at the art; they look at the inhuman things like data and past performance of such things and the money accumulated in them. But every now and then there are times when the artists and real art break through and gain enough exposure and support to be seen on a major platform. That’s when the artist wins, and I’ve never seen this not paid back in huge dividends, but it takes decision makers who are genuinely willing to let the artists win every now and then, and those are rare. It’s not surprising to me. Nothing that happens is surprising because I know it will be received if you give real vision and stories that are never told a chance to live on a big platform. There’s all these other ways people make decisions that lead to this kind of success not being seen, so it feels like that kind of event. It makes sense to me.

Thompson: I was recently at Disney’s California Adventure theme park and I saw that your character, Okoye, is there in the Avengers Campus area.

Gurira: Yeah, apparently she’s been there for a while.

Thompson: People went crazy for her and she gathered a huge crowd when she came out. Have you seen her and how does it feel for your character to transcend the film in this way?

Gurira: It means a lot. I am thankful to Ryan for coming up with her and letting me run with her. There was a tone I wanted to set that I wanted her to be someone who makes herself laugh. She always has a touch of humor, but gets the job done, there’s her love for her country, and those were things I understood about her. Like I said, you don’t know if people don’t think the baby is cute. I’m thankful that she was received so wonderfully, and I’ve heard that this woman dances much better than I do (laughs). I’ve read she’s quite a mover.

Thompson: You should go see her.

Gurira: I will. I did indeed meet her. She came to do some replacement work for us during the reshoots, so I met her, but I didn’t spend time with her while she did the work. I’m excited to see another black girl get a job from this. That’s great for me, and Godspeed. I find it so exciting, and I love how this woman, this “bald-headed demon” and all, is received. Again, I think this hits my point that sometimes you have to step out of the box, which is where you might find the best stuff.

Thompson: Speaking of expansions of popular characters you’ve played, Michonne is getting a spin-off series starring Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. With Okoye’s popularity with a captive audience, that increases the chances of her becoming a Black Panther spinoff on Disney+?

Gurira: I can’t speak to that. It’s been spoken to and then more or less officially spoken to, so I don’t know how to respond to you other than to say that this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that said, and things are brewing. Let me put it this way. You know the drill.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in theaters now.

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