Shonka Dukureh was authentically spiritual. Her inner life was large and you could see it through her actions and hear it in her voice. She played the role of Big Mama Thornton in my recent film Elvis. She was so loved by the entire 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.
Underneath all that goodness was a playful human being, funny as hell. 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. She would just make a room full of life.
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 Elvis, or how she would feel about performing on stage alongside Doja Cat at Coachella in April. It was completely gracious. It meant more than thank you; she was thanking you and thanking a higher power than ourselves, in equal measure. I used to tease her about how much she said it, but she wasn’t joking.
When we first encountered Shonka, she was singing with other gospel singers on tracks we would use in the movie to create the Pentecostal tent 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. It was important for us to convey that, put very bluntly, no Black music means no Elvis, so I knew I would need great performers to shine a light on these seminal artists who influenced him. 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. She was just an extraordinary human being.
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