Winston Duke: “I’m unfinished” | Own words

Tobago-born actor Winston Duke, appearing in the eagerly awaited Black Panther movie, on his love of stories and magical realism, how his village childhood shaped his ethos, and his love of soca music — as told to Caroline Taylor

  • Tobago-born actor Winston Duke. Photo by Kwaku Alston
  • Winston Duke (at centre) as M’Baku in Black Panther. ©Marvel Studios 2018

I left Tobago when I was about ten years old. My memories of Tobago are of running up and down on the beach, exploring my neighbourhood with friends, and a strong community of family. Family that always cooked and laughed together, family that supported each other, and came over any day they chose to. I remember freshly baked bread and sweet bread which my cousin, who lived about ten miles and four villages away, would have her teenage son deliver to us via bicycle. I really remember being part of something and somewhere — knowing I belonged.

Something in particular which is etched in my memory is my village’s annual harvest festival. There was nothing, and has been nothing in my life ever since, that compared to that kind of familial and community interaction — my entire village cooking and opening their homes for others, including complete strangers, to freely eat, drink, dance, and converse.

Then I moved to Brooklyn, New York, and the transition for me was incredibly hard. It was a huge culture shock. I came from an extended family in Tobago that easily spans at least two hundred and fifty people. So emigrating to a place where it’s just your mother and sister and little to no support systems was hard. I think I retreated deeply within myself.

Brooklyn wasn’t a safe space for me. I remember our first year living at our new studio apartment, it was broken into and all we had was stolen. I often wanted us to come back home, but I also knew it just was not the plan. The plan was to build — to achieve — to gain something different and valuable.

I wanted to become an actor because I love stories and I wanted to be a part of telling great stories to as many people as I could. I figured out early on that I wanted to be a part of stories that reflect the lives of people who don’t always get to have a voice.

My love for storytelling started back home in Tobago. I would listen to the older people in my village tell folklore stories about a gold-toothed donkey that they believed was a person who could shape-shift. Or of the douens which were supposedly the souls of children who died before they were christened. Or of this old man, Papa Bois, who lived in the forest and would protect it from hunters. I would always ask for those stories to be told to me every time older family and friends dropped by our house or restaurant. And let me tell you, they loved telling me those stories as well. This, I think, created my love for the genre of magical realism to this day.

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Landing the role of M’Baku in Black Panther was incredible. I just wanted to get in the room. I told my representation to just get me an audition and I’d do the rest. I loved [director] Ryan Coogler’s work — I remember being incredibly moved by Fruitvale Station and knowing that’s the kind of storyteller I wanted to work with one day. One with a clear and distinct voice.

Being on set was something I never experienced before. Working with my own personal heroes in that superhero setting was something poetic and epic. To be able to meet and work alongside Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Martin Freeman, and Chadwick Boseman, to name a few of this incredible ensemble, and not end up feeling out of place, was something I had only ever dreamed of before this movie. The knowledge that I was part of something that would allow people of colour all over the world to see themselves represented was surreal. What helped me to stay grounded was being careful to constantly check in with who M’Baku was — I wanted viewers to see a strong and impassioned leader willing to do whatever he has to for the betterment of his people.

Hollywood is going through a period where a lot of people are advocating for inclusion and representation, and I think that directly correlates to the opportunities I am getting. Also, people are crying out for transparency, equality, and equity, so it’s a space that is empowering artists such as myself — who, perhaps, do not fit some of the previously held notions of leading male or female actor. I am six-foot-five, two hundred and thirty pounds, and I think now is the time when the possibilities are higher for me to play people with depth. Not just goons and muscle, but layered and thinking individuals who have complex motivations.

I believe this creates a huge market for strong stories that can come from the Caribbean — our folklore, our knack for great drama and storytelling has its place now. We just have to create the work. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before — just think of Euzhan Palcy and Sidney Poitier as zenith examples. We have beautiful sub-cultures which can and should be explored — our relationship to the sea and our fishermen, our mixed, blended cultures and the trials that come with that, our richly mixed and painful history of rebellion, revolution, and discovery — all of these stories are present in our Caribbean culture, and I would say the time is now. The world is “smaller” due to the internet and social media. People are craving their reflection.

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I would like my career to go into writing and producing stories about the immigrant experience. I love stories about outsiders who, through sheer will, create their own path. I would love to explore more magical realism, and follow my personal mission of depicting people who usually don’t get seen or given the opportunity to be visible.

I try to return to Tobago at least once a year. Most recently I was in T&T briefly in the days before Carnival 2017, but then had to rush back to set to complete shooting for Black Panther. It never works out perfectly to be there for Carnival, but I try every year. I fail because Carnival usually falls at one of the busiest times of year for me. That said, I love coming home. It charges me up. There are still a lot of things in process. Homes get built by people with their bare hands, with their blocks and cement and PVC pipes, and things aren’t finished, and it always feels like me. I’m in process — I’m unfinished.

Film, and my current life, are all about the product and the end result — but, to me, it’s the story in the process that makes everything worthwhile. So my focus tends to stay there, and coming home always reminds me of that. It keeps me grounded.

I want to say a big shout-out to Bunji Garlin and Machel Montano — because I listen to their music almost every day. “Buss Head” — I listen to their lyrics of artistry, patience, process, and integrity. It reminds me that I come from a place with beautiful people who create and know themselves. It makes me further interrogate who I am and why I do what I do.

Black Panther will be released on 9 February in the UK, and 16 February in the US. Read the full Q&A with Winston on our sister site at DiscoverTnT.com.