It’s no secret that Winston Duke’s life has irrevocably changed since Marvel’s Black Panther became a hit, and now, we ask him to make sense of it all.
Not even a full two weeks after Black Panther’s then long-awaited Feb. 16 release, there was no denying that Winston Duke’s life had significantly changed. There he was on the carpet for the A Wrinkle in Time premiere in Hollywood with newly minted fans in queue to pose for pics. Even when Oprah Winfrey, one of the main stars of the Ava DuVernay-directed film, showed up, Duke remained a draw. Apparently that purple suit covering his six-foot-five frame had been wisely selected. In many African nations, the color purple symbolizes royalty and prosperity and Duke was certainly representing every bit of it that night.
His portrayal of M’Baku, his Black Panther character who leads the self-isolating Jabari Tribe in Wakanda, was just that affecting. Somehow in his motion picture debut, Duke managed to shine alongside the far more well-known actors, Chadwick Boseman, who is T’Challa/Black Panther, and Michael B. Jordan, who plays Killmonger. And his spot in Marvel’s other highly anticipated film, Avengers: Infinity War, released April 27, capitalizes on that.
Duke’s M’Baku proved so popular that he found himself doing press for Infinity War with Marvel Cinematic Universe veterans Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon) and Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes a.k.a. Winter Soldier) as well as solo. Mere days before the mammoth release of just his second film ever, Duke was on the phone from L.A. with Okayplayer trying to make sense of it all.
“It’s like nothing else,” he says of his ride since Black Panther’s release. “It’s been one big roller coaster but I keep myself grounded and focused.” During his lean times, he says he always prayed for work but never for fame and that mindset is serving him now.
As a young kid, Duke never thought of acting at all. He had bigger issues on hand. At barely ten, he, his mother and sister came to Brooklyn from their native Tobago, the less populous sister island to Trinidad. There, a young Duke had been surrounded by a village filled with over two hundred relatives. In Brooklyn, it was just the opposite. He was often alone as his mother worked a lot and his older sister pursued her dream to become a doctor. During that time, he found companionship in comic book form.
“I never thought that one day I could play these kind of characters,” says the 31-year-old, recalling that time. “I just thought that the stories felt like they were me. What I loved about all these stories is that they were about people who were discovering that they were special and were discovering that they had special abilities that would put them in a position in life to fully realize their complete self.”
Drawn to characters like Spider-Man who was bullied, Duke, who also felt “a bit like an outsider … like I’m misunderstood,” found an early kinship. Reading comic books helped him stave off that sense of isolation. Instead he began to think “me being an immigrant, me being new to this space, that [is what] actually makes me really powerful in my perspective.”
Pondering what to do with that power helped lead him here. “I grew into an actor who uses his work to inspire social discourse,” he explains.
Initially, his decision to pursue acting didn’t go over very well. “My family wanted me to pursue law but I didn’t have the passion for it. I didn’t have the love for it,” says Duke. “I wanted to pretend to be other people for the rest of my life.” It’s a calling he now realizes had always been there. “I feel like acting and telling stories has been in my blood for a really long time, but my first actual decision to act was probably in high school when I did my first play.”
After graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo, acceptance into the prestigious Yale School of Drama sealed his fate. “I knew that once I finished the program, I’d be able to go out and work with professionals. After that, I had nothing but faith and belief in myself.”
Duke certainly couldn’t have known that he would make his film debut in a blockbuster that would so significantly impact the entire African Diaspora, all the way from his adopted and native countries to his ancestral continent. But what he did know is that “M’Baku could be one of my uncles” and that immediately drew him in.
Duke says he could “personally relate” to M’Baku’s “attachment to his community and how people depend on him. I felt like that represents me. I definitely understand the place that I hold in my community and the place that I hold in the black family and the importance of that image and it really made me excited to put out an image of a black man but in the sense of the black man and black woman within my community that I see every day but I don’t see on the screen.”
To him, that representation is key to why Black Panther has been so well-received, generating over a billion global box office dollars and perhaps just as many thinkpieces. “I think that’s what was really cool about Black Panther,” he continues. “It’s not that [these] characters and those representations of characters don’t exist to us. It’s that they do exist to us. . . . I think black people see these representations in their real life but none of them are usually on screen and I think that’s the thing that seems to be jarring for people.”
Making his film debut in such a significant film was less jarring for him thanks to his Yale School of Drama classmate and long-time friend Lupita Nyong’o starring in it. “Being with her on that set, it was all just so serendipitous,” Duke says, with awe in his voice. “It felt like we came full circle from just [being] dreamers.”
“We’ve supported each other for many years and been really close friends for many years and, to be able to share that with someone that you knew, like you knew their own personal struggles, you knew what they’ve been through to get to where they are, it was just so much more rewarding to share that kind of experience. It couldn’t have been a better experience or a better first movie.”
As for his and key members of the Black Panther crew’s smooth transition into filming Infinity War, Duke gives all the credit to the Marvel forces behind Black Panther. “Because they did such a great job of spending time with us building the world of Wakanda, we didn’t have to spend a lot of time doing backstory,” he explains. “You already have that backstory. You’re already attached to Okoye and M’Baku and Shuri and T’Challa. You’re already invested. So once we get in there, all they’re doing is throwing us into interesting situations and circumstances and we’re figuring our way out of it with the tools that we have at hand with these really great, bold personalities. So it wasn’t anything too jarring and it was a very trusting set.”
Black Panther’s storyline was so strong that it also helped to make the threat to Wakanda in Infinity War very real, says Duke “We spent a good enough time setting up who the Wakandans are, what their society is, what their values are, so it was just an exciting thing to put them in danger.”
But prior to filming Infinity War, Duke knew none of this because “we weren’t allowed to read the script,” he shares. Instead the set itself showed him just how truly huge Avengers: Infinity War and its “125 superheroes” were. “You could see the scope of what [was] being made simply by looking at how they prepared for it and seeing everyone’s trailers on set,” he explains. “I think seriously there were not enough trailers to go around the rest of Atlanta. It was something crazy.”
Where Duke goes from here isn’t crazy at all. “I really want to do work about people who don’t usually get their stories told and whose stories are usually limited and limited because of their skin color, their social economic class and pre-judgments about who they are,” he shares.
“So I love redefining what the everyman looks like. I love saying that their stories are valid and deserve to be told,” he continues. “I want to put out work about what our bodies look like attached to magic, attached to grand adventure, attached to globetrotting adventure, what black skin looks like attached to all kinds of different genres and continuing the conversation that a lot of other fantastic strong artists like Denzel [Washington] have been doing and Wesley Snipes, Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, yeah Will Smith, all these people. I want to continue that conversation of being that every man but being six foot five [doing it].”
Ronda Racha Penrice is an Atlanta-based freelance writer/cultural critic and author of African American History For Dummies whose work has appeared on The Root, NBC BLK and NBC Think. To keep up with her various travels and rants, follow @rondaracha on both Instagram and Twitter.