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Elvis Actor Shonka Dukureh Was Found Dead At 44

Shonka Dukureh, as Big Mama Thornton in Elvis
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The new Baz Luhrmann movie Elvis tells the story of a musician that dies too young, leaving fans to ask the question of what might have been. Now, in a terrible turn of fate life has imitated that art, as one of the performers in the film, Shonka Dukureh, who played Big Mama Thornton, has passed away at the age of 44.

CBS News reports that just after 9:30am on Thursday morning, Dukureh was found unresponsive by one of the two children she lived with in her Nashville apartment. The children ran to a neighbor for help and the police were called. The cause of death is not yet known, an autopsy will be performed, but no foul play is suspected.

Shonka Dukureh appears briefly in Baz Luhrmann's stylistic movie about the life of Elvis. She plays Big Mama Thornton, the R&B singer who originally recorded "Hound Dog" before Elvis took the song and made it an even bigger hit.  

Shonka Dukureh was a Blues singer in Nashville and the role in Elvis was her first major film role. In addition to appearing in the movie she also appeared in Doja Cat's music video for "Vegas," a song from the movie's soundtrack. Upon hearing the news of her death Nashville's mayor John Cooper spoke out.

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In the movie, when Elvis needs to escape from his newly budding fame, he heads into Memphis to listen to the various African-American musicians that are playing. He's already friends with a young B.B. King and he hangs out with Big Mama Thornton and is introduced to Little Richard.

With the role in Elvis the world was introduced to the singing skills of Shonka Dukureh. It seems very likely she would have been able to use the role as a doorway to more opportunity. Who knows where her career could have gone from here. Not only have her friends and family lost of loved one, but so have her budding fans. 

In a recent post to Instagram Dukureh wrote about how grateful she was to be part of the movie, and in the accompanying video you can just feel how excited she was to be playing Big Mama Thornton

A post shared by Shonka Dukureh (@iamshonkadukureh) (opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

While losing a loved one is never easy, family and fans will at least have the movie as a sort of time capsule, allowing them to remember her as she was. Our hearts go out to Shonka Dukureh's children and everybody else who has lost a loved one in this tragic event. 

Dirk Libbey
Dirk Libbey

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.