Shonka Dukureh: Baz Luhrmann Pays Tribute to Elvis Actor

Shonka Dukureh had a deep spirituality. It was easy to see and hear the depth of her inner world through her actions. My recent film featured her as Big Mama Thornton. Elvis. Her love was felt by all the cast and crew.

Shonka, who was tragically found dead on July 21 at the age of 44, was a beloved gospel singer and teacher in Nashville; my understanding was that the young kids she taught couldn’t believe “Miss” was now in a movie.

There was something more to her than all the goodness. She was also a very funny person. I can’t imagine her being in a situation where she wouldn’t connect with those around her. That’s a very special thing, the energy she brought—through her eyes, her voice, her presence. Her presence would bring life to any room.

Shonka was always saying “blessings.” That’s what she said after I asked her if she would consider taking on the role of Big Mama Thornton in ElvisIf she could, how would it feel to perform on stage with Doja Cat in Coachella this April? The gesture was truly gracious. This was more than a thank-you. She was simultaneously thanking you for your help and expressing gratitude to a greater power than herself. I used to tease her about how much she said it, but she wasn’t joking.

Shonka first met us when she sang with gospel singers. These songs were used in the film to recreate the Pentecostal revival sequences. You could hear her voice really lifting people up—lifting the roof and spirits up—and that’s when I realized she was an authentic spiritual person. That was really important to the film because Elvis, since his early childhood, was an intensely spiritual person himself and the world of early rock ’n’ roll had a great fluidity between sacred and secular artists and music. To convey the message that there was no Elvis without Black music, it was crucial for me to have great performers. Shonka really brought Big Mama Thornton to life with tremendous passion and confidence, and I’m grateful that she was able to share her gift with a wider audience. Her extraordinary humanity was unmatched.

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