Black Panther sequel Wakanda Forever continues to hold off all comers at the top of the box office. At the time of writing this piece, it has secured a fourth straight week as the biggest draw for audiences in movie theaters.
It sold another $17.6 million in tickets in North America over the weekend. To date, the film has grossed $733 million at the worldwide box office, $393.7 million of which was taken domestically.
I caught up with one of the movie’s leads, Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, to discuss Wakanda Forever bucking the industry’s box office struggles, her reaction to audiences embracing the sequel, her character being a draw at Disneyland, and spin-off talk.
Simon Thompson: You usually get to talk to like me about movies like this before they come out. Now you have the luxury of talking about it once you’ve seen everybody’s reactions and its success. What has it been like watching Wakanda Forever continue to draw significant audiences?
Danai Gurira: It’s everything. At the end of the first movie, I remember saying to Camille Friend, the film’s fabulous hair designer, that it had been an intense gestation period, but I thought it would be a beautiful baby. It felt like that to me. Maybe you have a baby and think it’s cute, but no one else does. You don’t know. There’s never the certainty of what it will be like for everybody else, but to experience this response is incredible, especially as we’ve given it so much. It was a very intense, specific experience making this film after losing Chadwick Boseman, and we tried to honor him as much as we could. That was our entire focus and purpose. The process of grief our director and writer, Ryan Coogler, chose to make such a strong theme is rarely brought to the screen in this way in such a world. It allowed us to honor Chadwick very specifically. The responses have been so overwhelming and wonderful, especially the experiences of people processing their grief through watching the film and feeling that they had honored Chadwick, who was loved by so many worldwide.
Thompson: It’s incredible to hear that.
Gurira: Women have also come up to me and talked about how they now go to the gym and want to get as fit as possible. They want to experience their physical strength to the max. One woman came up to me limping, saying after she saw me in the film, she overworked out (laughs), so please be careful. That is something I could never have predicted, but I’m thankful if, at any time, a woman wants to find her empowerment. That feels like more than a win. Of course, there are also young girls being affected by Shuri, so there are so many ways that we see responses that are a blessing to us.
Thompson: This is 2022, and everybody has an opinion, especially on the internet. You mentioned how Wakanda Forever honors Chadwick. There seems to be an essentially universal agreement about how well you all did that. It can’t have been easy to get that right.
Gurira: That’s what’s great about this team. We’re a team of folks who pursue authentic storytelling and try to honor the things that feel true to 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 a screen, and you have to trust that. There has to be an anchoring component to pursuing a narrative about the truth you feel is right and a story you can stand behind. That’s the risk we take as artists and as storytellers. Yes, everyone could have an opinion, but you know, I’m a playwright, and I always say that by the opening night, I need to be able to look at it and say, ‘That’s what I meant and that I can live with. Whatever they write about it, whatever they say, that’s what I meant.’ That’s definitely what Ryan pursues as well, and I think that’s what we’re able to look at and feel that anchoring in.
Thompson: A massive achievement for Wakanda Forever is that it is only one of only a handful of movies this year that have bucked the box office trend and not only brought in significant audiences but also had staying power.
Gurira: It feels very gratifying, but the reason why I’m very thankful is primarily down to the people I work with. That includes Ryan Coogler and how thankful I was to work with Chadwick, the amazing costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who is astounding, and the production designer Hannah Beachler; these women are incredible auteurs and artists. What makes everyone remarkable is that what they’re pursuing is so pure in its intent and clarity of 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 are pulling in. There are also biases depending on who they are gathering their information from. I see polls sometimes, and I’m like, ‘I’ve never been asked anything for a poll in my life. Am I not here?’ Often the folks who make the decisions are not looking to the art; they’re looking at the unhuman stuff like data and past performances of such things and the money accumulated therein. But now and then, there are times when the artists and true art break through and get enough exposure and backing to be seen on a large platform. That’s when the artist gets to win, and I’ve never seen that not pay back in massive dividends, but it takes those decision makers that are genuinely willing to let the artists win every now, and they are rare. To me, it’s not surprising. Nothing that’s happening is surprising because I know that it will be received when you give true vision and stories that are never told a chance to live on a large platform. There are all these other ways folks make decisions that result in not seeing this kind of success, so it feels like such an event. It makes sense to me.
Thompson: I was at Disney’s California Adventure theme park recently, and I saw that your character, Okoye, is there in the Avengers Campus area.
Gurira: Yeah, apparently, she’s been there for a little while.
Thompson: People were going 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 movie this way?
Gurira: It means a great deal. I’m thankful to Ryan because he came up with her and let 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 an edge of humor going on but gets the job done, there is her love for her nation, and that was stuff that I understood about her. As I said, you don’t know if people don’t think the baby’s cute. I’m thankful she’s received so wonderfully, and I’ve heard this woman dances far better than I do (laughs). I’ve read she’s quite a mover.
Thompson: You should go and check her out.
Gurira: I will. I actually did meet her. She did come and do some stand-in work for us during the reshoots, so I met her, but I haven’t spent time with her as she did the job. I’m excited to see another black girl get a job out of this. That, to me, is fantastic, and Godspeed. I think it’s so exciting, and I love how this woman, this “bald-headed demon” and all, is received. Once again, I think that hits my point that sometimes you’ve got to step out of the box, and that’s where you might find the best stuff.
Thompson: Talking of extensions of popular characters you have played, Michonne is getting a spin-off series with Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. With Okoye’s popularity with audiences cemented, does that increase the chance of her getting a Black Panther spin-off on Disney+?
Gurira: I can’t speak to that. It’s been spoken to and then sort of not been officially spoken to, so I don’t know how to respond to you except to say that that’s not the first time I’ve heard that said, and there are things brewing. Let me just put it that way. You know how it goes.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in theaters now.