Danai Gurira is a Jolt of Truth on International Women’s Day
Last year, McCann made a big splash on International Women’s Day with the unveiling of Fearless Girl in NYC. This year, we managed to do something just as meaningful.
On Thursday, March 8, several hundred McCanners were thrilled to welcome actor, writer and activist Danai Gurira to our offices to talk about her personal and professional journey, the powerful female characters she portrays and her advocacy work for women and girls. The resulting conversation with our president, Devika Bulchandani, was one of the most inspiring talks ever given at our agency. Danai is a perfect example of a “fearless girl.”
“It’s a constant journey”
Danai was born in the U.S. and raised in Zimbabwe. She has appeared in film and TV, penned four plays including last year’s Tony-nominated ECLIPSED and Playwright’s Horizon’s FAMILIAR, and founded the non-profit organizations, Love Our Girls and Almasi Arts Alliance. She’s one of the most electrifying actresses in Hollywood today and has been in the spotlight recently for the runaway success of Marvel’s Black Panther and the 8th season of AMC’s hit show, The Walking Dead. But before the fame and success, finding her own voice, her own truth and her own self was -- and continues to be -- a journey.
“Everyone goes through their own version of coming into yourself,” she said. “Everyone has to self-actualize and start choosing their own truth: that’s the way you tap into your own potential.”
That journey toward embracing your truth is not easy, and it’s full of distractions. There’s pressure to be a people pleaser, to fit into a category and, especially in the age of social media, to ask yourself, “Are you living a life worth watching?”
But that’s the wrong question. Finding your truth is a journey of solitude.
“Often when you have something to give to the world, it’s after you’ve spent some time alone,” said Danai. “After you’ve spent some time in and with yourself.”
After spending the last several months “pouring out” while doing press for Black Panther, Danai is ready to retreat and re-focus on herself. “Being truthful to yourself – it’s a constant journey.”
“It doesn’t make sense”
Growing up in Zimbabwe, Danai was inundated with Western culture – American, British and Australian TV and almost exclusively American film. Somewhere along the way, she realized she wasn’t seeing portrayals of the people around her. “The stories being told very rarely came from the cultural perspective that I came from, and it made no sense,” she said.
In college, she began questioning perceptions of beauty – especially around skin color and hair. To be told that one skin color is more beautiful than the other didn’t fit into her personal world view. “If it doesn’t make sense,” she decided, “I’m not doing that anymore.”
She became unapologetic about being an African woman and, from then on, dedicated herself to telling African stories. Thus began Danai’s journey of writing, creating and storytelling. “I created a lot of my plays from an impetus of outrage,” she said. Danai is now the trailblazer in a community of first-generation African-American playwrights who are telling African stories on stages across the country. Sure, there were naysayers along the way, but it was all part of her journey. “Not everyone’s going to align with me and not everyone is going to like me,” she said. ”That was a big part of finding my truth.”
Danai challenged the audience to look at the world and ask, “What makes no sense here? What needs to be rectified?”
“We accept things that we really shouldn’t,” she said, “because they make no sense.”
“To me, all feminism means is gender equality”
In the movie business, women are often compartmentalized, and Danai constantly sees women struggle with what “category” they fit into. The opportunity to portray a female character who stands as a true equal to men is what drew her to her Black Panther character, Okoye, whom she describes as both “fierce and feminine.” The movie is being celebrated as breaking many norms in its portrayal of women. “You could be the head of the military and still wear a bold lip and lashes,” she said of Okoye.
What’s more, Danai has found a connection between her art and her drive to advocate for women. Inspired by a fan of The Walking Dead, Danai founded the non-profit Love Our Girls to give a voice to the struggle of women and girls. The organization is dedicated to spreading awareness about the injustices women and girls face around the world with resources to make real change in communities.
Danai is a loud voice in the fight for gender parity. Feminism is a loaded word but, to Danai, it’s simple.
“To me, all feminism means is gender equality,” she said. “It’s an embarrassment that we’re still in a society where so much gender disparity exists. We are missing out as a global society by not giving the same opportunities to women and girls.”
After a brief Q&A with the audience, Danai left the fired-up crowd with six parting words: “Go out and change the world!”
Photos by: Katie Henry