Winston Duke on Making a New M’Baku for Black Panther

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T’Challa’s longtime enemy is given a revamp in Black Panther and Winston Duke takes on the role.

In Marvel Comics canon, M’Baku — known by the rather unfortunate supervillain name Man-Ape — is a Wakandan warrior who wants to return the technologically advanced nation to its primitive roots. As a result he becomes a regular adversary to both the Black Panther and the Avengers, fighting T’Challa and other superheroes during his long stint on the page as the leader of the renegade White Gorilla Cult, from which he derives his powers.

M’Baku still leads the White Gorilla Cult and still shows disdain for Wakanda’s futuristic high tech in the movie Black Panther, but the name Man-Ape is nowhere to be found. As played by Winston Duke in his first feature film, he has his own kind of dignity, a kind of mirthful irreverence, and a sharp, strategic intelligence that gives him a crucial role to play as the movie’s plot unfolds. He’s also a massive physical presence and just as fierce a warrior as any of his countrymen or women.

Duke, a native of the Trinidadian island of Tobago who emigrated to the U.S. when he was nine years old, made several TV appearances in his relatively brief acting career before landing the role of M’Baku in director Ryan Coogler’s new Marvel epic. Brinkwirespoke with him at the Los Angeles press day for Black Panther, where he talked movingly about the importance of the film to him and the kind of impact he hopes it can have on new generations of viewers looking for representation.

Den of Geek: This is your first feature film.

Winston Duke: This is my first feature film ever, so it’s a really new experience.

You went right in the deep end.

Yeah, man. The deepest end. I’m going in the diving pool here.

What was the audition process like?

I went through the audition process and to be honest, I just thought I’d be watching this movie like everyone else. I was just excited when I heard it had been announced, and then Chadwick Boseman and Civil War came out, and everyone loved it. And I loved it. And then it just kept building momentum. Lupita, Danai, Michael B Jordan, I’m like, “That’s pretty cool.”

I let my people know that I’d love to work with Ryan Coogler one day because I thought he’s just one of those truly auteur directors of our time. And I was just like, “I want to work with a guy like that.” I think he has such a great understanding and distinct voice of his own. So I wanted to do that.

And then I got in the room. And we worked for about 40 minutes. He took me in every direction. It was like, “Can you do it this way? Can you do it that way?” And we just went in so many different directions with the character and it wasn’t until working with him that I realized that’s his style. He has a very, I would say, musical approach, and a musicality to his directing style where he really just listens, and listens really deeply and intently because sometimes while auditioning, I would notice he wasn’t watching me, he was listening.

He’d be like, “Okay. Cool, cool, cool.” And then he’d come up to me and say, “I like what you did here but can you make this little part here, a little more personal? Make it just more personal and send it.” And that was really wonderful. So getting the role through that audition process was just something that I could never imagine, but happened.

Were you familiar with the comics?

I grew up with comic books, and I’m from the Caribbean so comic books were really a great interrogator of American culture for me. It was a vehicle in but I didn’t grow up reading Black Panther. I grew up with mutants and all these things, but Black Panther accessed a different part of the comic book world, and the comic book community for me once I did get the role.

Before I got the script, after I got the part, I went to my neighborhood comic book store and the guy recognized me because some information was leaked that Winston Duke’s been tapped as M’Baku and all this stuff. And he recognized me right away. I walk in and he just kept glancing over. When we caught eyes, he started smiling a big smile. And then this guy pulled every single comic book that M’Baku had ever appeared in and then came out from the back, and was like, ‘pow’. He’s like, “There you go! That’s for you. Good luck.” I was like, “Whoa.”

That’s the kind of support that I’ve gotten for this film and that’s the kind of support that we got at Hall H at Comic-Con when we encountered the fans, and they’re showing all that love. So for me, man, being part of this community is like nothing else.

M’Baku’s villain name in the comics wouldn’t really fly these days, but there’s still kind of an acknowledgement to it in the movie.

Yeah, those elements are still there and I think it’s a really great testament to the creative team, that they have taken this character, this leader of the White Gorilla Cult, and elevated him to having a lot more agency and integrity. They gave him more responsibility because now he bears the burden of shouldering the welfare of an entire tribe, an entire community, and that’s really powerful. That’s put him in a place of not being ego driven, but being driven more by having to do a great job for his people and those are his attachments.

His culture and heritage, and what it means to him, that comes through because they pray to a different god. They’re not part of this proper Wakandan society. They have their own thing and they’re proud of that. So they come in and they announce themselves like a gorilla. They don’t sneak around. M’Baku says what he means and he means what he says, and you’re going to listen.

He seems to enjoy getting under people’s skin.

He’s a truth teller. He takes a lot of joy from calling out what other people might be thinking so I feel like he has a lot of great introspection because he knows they think that he’s savage. He knows they think that he is just this big, intimidating guy, but at the same time he’s vegetarian.

All those things really told me that this guy’s deeply introspective and this guy’s deeply aware of himself, and how people perceive him. And he has agency because of that. He can use that and wield that to his advantage. You know what I mean? And I think that’s what’s really brilliant about this M’Baku, is he’s a thinking M’Baku. He’s a thinking, acting M’Baku who has fun and can find joy in all kinds of situations. He has tactics. So he knows how to intimidate. He knows how to make an appearance and use his size and stature, but he’s not what you think. That’s what I wanted to bring across, that he’s contemplative.

There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of this movie to black culture and the ideals of representation and equality. If you were seeing this film as a 12-year-old child of African descent, what would it mean to you and what do you think it’s going to mean to kids who will see this now?

I’m so excited and so moved at the idea of that. They’re going to be able to take in information and take in images and arguments and these ideas before they are completely formed. I’m a man. I’m an adult. I’m grown and I grew up under all the narratives and politics of my skin tone. I grew up under the politics of my size and my skin. I grew up under the politics of the sound of my voice and a lack of agency, or a feeling of a lack of agency, and not always being able to find myself in images that were in the media.

So to have kids be able to see this and see people represented with power, see people be able to change their lives either for the better or for the worse, see people who represent class and dignity, see black women with class, dignity, agency, strength, opinion, love, vulnerability… Before they’re formed. Before they’re told that they have to be the narratives that they’re told that they have to be. Before all the ‘isms’ of the world are placed on them, they get to consume, ingest and express this. That’s really beautiful and that’s important, and that’s something that I could never fully have imagined while doing the work for this film because there’s this film and then there’s the event around the film for what the film can mean. And I’m just deeply honored, and privileged to have been a part of it.

You are also in Avengers: Infinity War. What can you say about it?

I feel like what Black Panther does is build an entire new world, an entire new language, and a new lexicon for the MCU. It’s a really bold, new step into that future of the MCU, and then, Infinity War threatens and shakes that established world, and world order. That newly established world and world order is rocked when Thanos enters, and it’s going to be a wild ride.

Black Panther is out in theaters this Friday (February 16).

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