By: Ben Smith
Don’t bother trying to second-guess or pigeonhole Danai Gurira. Though she’s best known as the katana wielding badass Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead, she’s also an esteemed Broadway actor and award winning playwright. And while her character is famous for slicing and dicing zombies in the imaginary post-Apocalyptic world first seen in Robert Kirkman’s comic book, her plays confront the very real life issues facing women in Africa, where she spent large parts of her childhood. Whether as a tough female action hero or in her own writings, the quest for social justice and sexual equality is at the heart of her work so it comes as no surprise that Danai is involved with the advocacy group ONE’s ‘Poverty Is Sexist’ campaign. Her name was on the open letter the group sent to world leaders addressing the global reach of sexism and how poverty disproportionally affects women around the world and she spent International Women’s Day talking about the crisis and what can be done to help.
VH1: Tell us about the ‘Poverty Is Sexist’ campaign.
Danai Gurira: Unfortunately in the world today poverty is sexist. There’s nowhere in the world that women have the same opportunities as men and the poorest and least developed countries tend to be where the gender gap is the largest. This results in the fact that women and girls are the poorest and least advantaged people on the planet. 62 million girls around the world are unable to go to school simply because they are female. Two-thirds of our world’s illiterate are female. We have 40,000 girls a day becoming child brides before the age of 18. On the continent of Africa we know that 74 percent of all adolescents that contract the AIDS virus are female and that is often the result of sexual violence. So these are the facts that lead us to making this very powerful statement. If half of our population is unable to grow to their fullest potential or given every opportunity just because of their gender, then we have a problem and we are thwarting our own development as a global community.
What role do you think art can play in getting across the message of sexual equality?
I believe storytelling can be a powerful medium in bringing this issue to the forefront. There’s a great power in the way that awareness can be brought through storytelling, that isn’t by knocking people over the head, but by telling true, rich stories about people that are complex and deeply connected to human truth and experience. People feel connected to the issue and their humanity is engaged. I truly believe this. I’ve seen it in the work that I’ve put out there. It results in people wanting to become a part of something and move the needle on an issue to where it needs to be. I wrote my most recent play Eclipsed because I couldn’t believe these stories about women in Liberia during the civil war there. I wrote my first play, In The Continuum, because I was tired of seeing the story of African women and HIV being nothing but a statistic that flashed across the bottom of Western media’s TV screen. We can’t look at people as statistics. That minimizes our concern. There are lives and stories there. I’ve performed In The Continuum everywhere from classes to office buildings, all around the world. I’ve performed it in tiny little places and it’s a play that you can move and put on anywhere for that very purpose. Let’s put the story in front of people instead of just talking stats. I’ve just been discussing how to expose Eclipsed to lawmakers, not because I’m trying to espouse my work, but because it’s one of the few living and breathing examples of neglect around this issue, the loss of potential around the issue of women globally.
On The Walking Dead, your character Michonne is such an amazing strong and tough female character. Boys even look up to her as a role model.
I love this character and that I get to play her and explore so many facets of her humanity. She’s written as someone who can be related to by both male and female audiences and we have such amazing fans who talk to me about how much they enjoy her strength and relate to her personality. You know, I never expected to play a role on a TV show this popular, that actually was also a part of my own personal mission around these issues. It’s a gift to be able to do that.
Given the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy, another thing that makes The Walking Dead so great and interesting is the diversity of the cast.
Absolutely and I find that to be a very exciting factor. Our show works against the concept of ‘this is how a Black character would be’ or ‘this is how an Asian character would be.’ They’re wonderfully fleshed out characters due to our show runner Scott Gimple and the way that he crafts them and also the way Robert Kirkman crafted them in the pages of the original Walking Dead comics. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of and show that diversity does work. There isn’t just one way to put a character of color on the screen; there are many ways and I love that our show approaches our characters as people first. I hope it sets an example that others can follow, so there comes a time when there is no more conversation about diversity, it just becomes what is.
Your also playing Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother, in the upcoming biopic All Eyez on Me.
She’s a very complex and amazing character to play. She was part of The Black Panther movement of the ‘60s, which is a very undertold story. She was part of the “Panther 21” group who were accused of ludicrous charges of conspiracy to blow up police buildings and faced a combined 320 years in jail. It was one of the longest trials in the New York City criminal courts. She defended herself and did indeed get acquitted and was pregnant with Tupac at the time and gave birth to him a month later. So I do feel he was born into a very amazing, revolutionary woman’s life and I think that definitely impacted his outlook. She wanted him to be connected to the world and have a clear, informed mind so she exposed him to art and culture at a very young age. He wrote poetry about the painter Van Gogh at age 11. They were both extremely well read and he was very passionately connected to Shakespeare. He was acting in a production of Raisin in the Sun at age of 11. She sent him to the Baltimore School of The Performing Arts, which was a renowned school for acting. She had him reading The New York Times at age 10. She was also working against a system that was working against her in so many ways because of her political involvement. It was a constant struggle but she tried to keep his mind informed even when she didn’t have the resources. So she’s an astounding character to play and very much a part of how he developed his voice.