The "Black Panther" and "Us" star shared serious beliefs and amusing stories.
Before each answer, Winston Duke takes a brief pause to think, and as his eyes lift to meet his question-asker’s and his mouth opens to speak, the gears whirring inside his mind are able to be seen.
The breakout actor, known best for his role as M’Baku in the Academy Awards Best Picture nominee “Black Panther,” visited the Ringling College of Art and Design Feb. 6 to share with Ringling, Booker High and Booker Middle students his experiences and lessons, both as an actor and a student. Duke graduated first from the University at Buffalo, then got his master’s degree from Yale University in 2013, where he was classmates and friends with fellow “Black Panther” star Lupita Nyong’o. Both were part of Folks, an acting club for students of color that was co-founded by another “Black Panther” actress, Angela Bassett.
On the surface, Duke is nothing like M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari Tribe, whom Duke said during a public Q&A he tried to portray as a hyper-masculine male who is sure of who he is, and is thus “unapologetic and opinionated.” Of course, Duke also said he is attracted to characters who change, and M’Baku softens and shifts from foe to friend by the end of the film’s runtime.
During a media roundtable before the event, Duke credited the women in his life, including his mother, sister, agent, publicist and makeup artist, with teaching him to have challenging conversations every day, including on the definition of masculinity. Duke, who is also a participant in the He for She campaign for gender equality, said being challenged on your beliefs is necessary in order to better yourself.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about myself, and my place in the world,” Duke said.
Duke and M’Baku do share a few characteristics: They are humorous, as Duke proved when telling the story of how his pants split open during his “Black Panther” screen test while wrestling with star Chadwick Boseman, the end of a three-month audition process that started with him not knowing the film he was auditioning for, thanks to Disney’s secrecy. They are also both spiritual people. Duke said it took him until recently to figure out what people meant when they say God is ultimately forgiving.
“If there is a being that understands your roots,” Duke said, “Every nuance of every emotion, every strand of history in your DNA, then it must have empathy, and it must love you.”
The concept of understanding someone’s roots is at the heart of what Duke wants to accomplish as an actor. He sometimes sees himself as a type of therapist, he said, when figuring out a character. What was their childhood like? What is their relationship with their mother and father? Duke said he is drawn to characters from immigrant backgrounds, especially people who typically do not have their story told. These stories themselves matter as much as who is in them.
That is why, Duke said as an example, a James Bond film starring a person of color, where Bond acts the same way he always does — destroying the landscape, being a womanizer, having no personal connection to his community — would mean less than it should.
“You would still have a white character, just in black skin,” Duke said. “You cannot have that dynamic. The structures of movies themselves have to change. Hollywood needs to learn this.”
As far as Duke’s own projects, he is mum on any word about a “Black Panther” sequel (“Disney doesn’t tell me anything,” he said) and “Avengers: Endgame,” out April 26, but did share a bit of his process behind playing Gabe Wilson in “Us,” the new horror film from Academy Award winner Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) out March 22, which also stars Nyong'o.
Duke said Peele sent each member of the cast a pair of brass scissors before filming, the same scissors used in much of the film’s marketing. To dig as much meaning out of the film as possible, Duke said, he hired a dramaturg to sift through history and find each instance of brass scissors used in a literary or theatrical work, and what they symbolized. As for what he found, Duke can’t say, other than it gave him a bevy of artistic choices to make for Gabe, who Duke said is spontaneous and “lives life on the balls of his feet, rolling with the punches.”
But he did say, in the spirit of challenging long-held conventions, that the film would challenge the tropes of frightening flicks.
“People of color are usually the first casualties,” Duke said. “So, (we thought,) what else can be a casualty to the genre of horror?”