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Vanity Fair raves over Tobago boy

Published: 
Sunday, February 18, 2018
As Black Panther hits box office
Winston Duke in a scene from Black Panther.

Tobago-born US-based actor Winston Duke is receiving rave reviews for his role as the villain M’Baku in the Marvel blockbuster movie Black Panther, which opened on Friday to record audiences. In fact, Vanity Fair’s Yohana Desta rated him as one of the brighter stars of the film ahead of it’s opening. Following is Desta’s article on Duke.

When Winston Duke was a kid—9, or 10, he’s not quite sure—an episode of Frasier changed his life forever. It was Season 8, episode 12, “The Show Must Go Off”—more specifically, the scene where esteemed British actor Derek Jacobi parodies himself by doing a schmaltzy rendition of Hamlet, yowling, “I die, Horatio!”

“I ran around the house performing the bad Hamlet for a long time,” Duke says, chuckling. “I don’t know what it is about that episode, but it stuck with me.”

Two decades and two acting degrees later, the 31-year-old is, at long last, set to make his feature film debut in Marvel’s latest and greatest crown jewel, Black Panther. He’ll be introduced to millions of moviegoers and obsessive comic book fans as M’Baku, the leader of the distant Jabari mountain tribe and a villainous foil to Wakandan king T’Challa—and they’ll watch as Duke nearly steals the movie out from underneath Black Panther himself.

Duke is indelible in a role that’s been thankfully re-imagined for the screen. In the Black Panther comics, M’Baku is a classically jealous rival, itching to take the crown from his arch-nemesis. In the film, directed by Ryan Coogler, M’Baku is still angsty and ambitious, but his actions are grounded in a loyalty to his people above all else. When he first read the film’s script, Duke noticed straight-away that M’Baku often says “we” instead of “I”—the symbol of a true leader.

“He’s deeply attached to his community and the welfare of his people,” the actor says. “This is a lot more than I could have ever expected, especially for my first role.”

As M’Baku, Duke is an instantly fearsome presence, towering over T’Challa with his six-foot-five frame. But underneath that roiling fury is the sensitivity of a schoolboy who loves Frasier and a clever sense of humour (deployed with some of the film’s best one-liners), which turns him from a cardboard villain into a sensational fan favourite. And it doesn’t hurt that M’Baku is also broadly handsome, with a formidable shape-up, a spruce beard, and a marquee polish—in other words, a royal Wakandan thirst trap.

The Jabari tribe is known for worshipping the gorilla god Hanuman; in the original comics, M’Baku was actually introduced as “Man-Ape,” a name abandoned by the film adaptation for obvious reasons. But by contextualising the Jabari religion, Duke found an elegant way to sidestep negative or racist perceptions: “They haven’t been affected by colonialism and all the narratives that are associated with developing a sense of inferiority and people comparing them to animals,” he says. “To them, this is just who they pray to, and they find their strength and agency in this religion. So being a bit gorilla-influenced was a sense of pride for them.”

He also came up with certain ape-inspired characteristics for the film, including a scene in which the Jabari men grunt at an outsider who speaks without permission—a threatening cue for that person to shut up.

To find M’Baku’s voice, he researched and imitated Nigerian accents, further separating the character from the South African-inspired T’Challa. It’s just one of many ways the Jabari differ from the city-based Wakandans, who largely worship the panther god Bast.

“The panther is sleek, the panther is sneaky, the panther is covert—meanwhile, the gorilla will show up and bang on his chest and make noises to warn you about what is about to happen if you continue to cross the line,” Duke says. “We don’t hide, we don’t sneak. We come through the front door.”

Duke grew up in Tobago, in a small village called Argyle; a light accent still colours his voice. His mother worked for the government and had a restaurant on the side that often reeled in tourists. When Duke was a kid, he would show people to their tables, quickly learning how to charm strangers. When he was 9, his mother sold the restaurant and all their earthly possessions and moved the family to a studio apartment in Brooklyn in order to support Duke’s older sister as she pursued her dream of becoming a doctor. As she shuttled back and forth to the City College of New York, Duke withdrew into himself, spending most days after school going to the library or to a local comic-book store called Winston’s. (“Serendipitous,” he says.)

That adolescent-onset introversion, however, stayed with him through high school, until one of his Spanish teachers noticed that he came alive whenever he had to make presentations to the class. She signed him up for the theatre club and he never looked back, going on to study theatre at the University of Buffalo. He took a year off to hone his craft in Baltimore, then journeyed north again to enrol in the Yale School of Drama, where he became “really close friends” with an upper-classman named Lupita Nyong’o—the future Oscar winner and his eventual co-star in Black Panther. They were both members of Folks, an acting club on campus for students of colour, which was co-founded by Yale alum Angela Bassett—who, yes, is also in Black Panther. During the first cast dinner for the Marvel movie, Duke made sure to seek Bassett out and thank her for the legacy she had left behind at Yale.

From there, Duke immersed himself in Panther—embarking on a two-month-long training session with Boseman, talking shop with screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, and secretly geeking out about the set with Daniel Kaluuya, another cast member with limited blockbuster experience. “He’d come over to me and he’d go, ‘We’re in this. This is mad.’”

Before Black Panther, audiences might have seen Duke making the rounds on network shows: Modern Family, Person of Interest, Law & Order. In order to win the part of M’Baku, he had to audition four times over the course of three months, getting put through the ringer by Coogler. “He took me in every direction known to man with the character,” he says. Sometimes, he’d sneak glances at the filmmaker and realise that Coogler wasn’t even looking at him, but rather looking down and listening to the performance—sussing out “the patterns and the musicality,” Duke guesses.

In Duke’s estimation, Coogler felt a special affinity for the Jabari men, and would often rouse the cast and crew on a long day by performing the tribe’s glorious call and response. “He’s such a Jabari man,” he says. “He’s got the full beard, strong hair, very present. All these things. That’s a Jabari warrior right there.”

Duke cracks up at the suggestion that once the film finally hits theatres, the Jabari tribe might also be claimed by Omega Psi Phi, the black fraternity whose members are usually referred to as “Que Dogs”—and are known for barking and a general rebelliousness. He takes the joke, and we run with it; the female warriors of the Dora Milaje are obviously hip Deltas, while Nyong’o and Bassett’s characters are prim Alpha Kappa Alphas. It’s just another example of the way Black Panther is sure to be sewn into popular culture once it’s released. Duke can already feel the threads of his old life coming loose, can already sense pedestrians looking at him just a little bit longer when he’s on the street. “My life is changing,” he says calmly. “I’m becoming a lot more watched, and I can tell.”

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