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Cannes Lions: Shattering Stereotypes – The Danai Gurira Way


Danai Gurira Cannes Lions
Award-winning playwright, actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Danai Gurira is known for starring in the Black Panther and Avengers films. Gurira talks about leveraging our individual power and taking responsibility to meaningfully integrate un-stereotyping efforts.

You said that empathy and curiosity cannot live simultaneously with stereotype. As a storyteller how have you helped in unlocking empathy and curiosity and challenging stereotypes?
Danai Gurira: A core goal of mine pretty much throughout my life, work or myself has always been an outrage, I always start from a place of outrage, that's why I started to write. It's usually from that place. Why is this how things are portrayed? It's not accurate, it's not thorough, it's not investigated, it's very narrow. And so that has always upset me, because of course obviously it affects people like myself, it affects women, it affects black people, and so right there in that intersection lies my outrage. And then of course that causes me to see the outrage of others, because we see how unintrusive the world can be in terms of telling story and who represents what. So that's always been a drive of mine, really, is to counter stereotype. Creating plays in the United States that put African women at their protagonist was a drive to end that sort of perception. I was like a mad scientist, because I haven't seen it done yet. I'm going to hypothesize that there actually is a very powerfully and willing audience in many numbers that will be thoroughly connected to this African woman in Africa telling her stories for two hours. And that was constantly moving to the truth. You have to identify the lie. Being a part of the Black Panther franchise, someone told me they were sitting in an audience and they saw my characters in general, and this boy said to someone next to him, “I didn't know a girl could be a general.” And right there, we know there are many ways that the Black Panther did that. That sort of mindset where he made my character a general was really a very mindful way to come from the stereotype. And you see in this young male boy's mind, he's immediately challenged from what he's been taught about who can play what. And we know that there's a lot of disparities still with how women are portrayed in powerful roles on the screen versus men, it's one of the massive gaps that affects culture.

Almost 70% of people are feeling like stereotypes are getting worse. And we define being an upstander as somebody who helps people when they see them being stereotyped. Versus a bystander, which is somebody who sees that stereotype happening and does nothing. So, what do you think would move somebody, or can move somebody today from being a bystander to being an upstander? What is the frame shift that needs to happen?
Danai Gurira: Well, I think it is so connected to your particular experiences. When a lot of things go through your mind and you realize I've had stereotypes in my head concerning this particular situation. I've never seen this. And there's another way that I perceived this. It's that moment that you're going to come across it. It's going to happen. But the question is, what do you have in your toolkit? I know that there will be some tools that are provided in a general way. But the way to get specific about it is what resonates for you in that moment to say, “I'm not going to do what was done to me. I'm going to stop it right now.” It's basically the premise of do unto others. What would you want them to do? Why would you want someone to assume that you can't do what they're doing? Would you want someone to assume something very hyper-simplified about you and about everyone's stories as a collective? So really starting from that place of empathy I believe is really one of the key things in addition to curiosity.

The reason why you're so powerful speaking about this, is that we can creatively write and eradicate these stereotypes out of existence. How do you use your art as an act of creative rebellion?
Danai Gurira: There is something we need to, I truly believe this, and maybe it's the generation. I really think we need to re-engage, we need to find balance with our information age and re-engage our pre-information age. We used to take a little more time to understand and to get information and to get knowledge. I go into all types of examples of a young woman I was trying to educate about the reproductive system. She was actually not that young and asked me if she could just do it on a TikTok. And I said, no, you need to read a book. She said, but that's not efficient, that's not quick! It's an idea that you've always got to be quick and it's actually calcifying our tendency towards stereotyping. Because we're seeing things in quick symptoms, and that's it. The idea of reading a book, doing research beyond a couple of the real quick Google searches. That sort of thing doesn't allow for the people to understand it. So, it's really about how do we re-engage into the vision, because I think the more we re-engage in it, and really immerse ourselves in it, the less we're going to make snappy decisions about people that are different from ourselves.

I feel like I wasn't born with a choice. Either I denied what I was, or I just took all the struggle that I was taking on. It requires isolation. A play I wrote was completely in a foreign language to Americans or to the West in my language of Zimbabwe in the 1820s. People were like, what theater was going to produce that? And I didn't care and that's how sometimes when we're marginalized, we make the decision maker happy with the depiction so that they'll let people see it, so that they'll green light it. But we have to just consistently defy that, and we've seen it defy in wonderful ways. And I'm going to just go with that and my curiosity is going to guide me beyond the stereotype I've been fed. The crazy thing is that the play actually did become a very well-produced project, and recently in England, which was definitely the country I was pocking at because they colonized us, it was put on for high school kids. As you get older, sometimes you get a little bit more to eat and you've got to keep that drive going around.

What is one take-away action step you would like to encourage people to do today?
Danai Gurira: There's a brilliant book called How to Be an Anti-Racist which is absorbing all the reasons why racism is so powerfully pervasive throughout our world, especially in the West for the African and African descents. And the thing that the author says, which is so brilliant, is that he takes it on himself. Even though there are many ways that he could say, I am a victim or I have been hurt by this. He takes it on himself and says, it requires consistent self-examination. And he was talking about all of his flaws and pains and faults that he committed through the course of his life in this astounding tone. So, I would say that is a key. Once you go through the constant practice of self-rigorous self-examination, you have to then take on a different stance because you're seeing where you are at home. And once you embrace people around you to talk to you without fear of being fired, or worse, blackballed, you are allowing for yourself to go through growth and change and this will reflect the decisions you make.