"Avengers" and "Black Panther" star Winston Duke is taking his characters beyond the movie screen to have an impact in the black community and to find a voice for himself.
As part of Black Heritage Month and the University Lecture Series, Duke on Tuesday night before a crowd of about 500 in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom shared relatable stories on his transition from a close-knit communal life in the Caribbean to his Hollywood debut.
Duke is proud of his roots in Trinidad and Tobago and his family-oriented lifestyle. He brought his mother to the lecture and had the audience wooed when he described her as "my Wakanda forever."
Cora Pantin, Duke’s mother, shared her appreciation of her son’s work with The Oracle.
“As a child I had brought from Tobago at the age of 9, Winston has followed the ways that I trained him,” Pantin said. “He told me he was going to be a lawyer and then he changed his mind to become someone who he enjoys.”
Duke shared with the crowd how being cast in a Marvel movie was a full-circle experience for him since he used comic books as an introduction into American culture.
He said his success in landing his first movie role was not just an overnight sensation. Duke had been on over 600 theater, TV and film auditions before he was given the role of M’Baku in "Black Panther." At one point, he was doing five auditions a day and was given 12 hours to prepare for some of them.
"The grind doesn't stop," Duke said. "The grind just changes."
Duke knew "Black Panther" castmates Angela Bassett and Lupita Nyong'o when he attended the Yale School of Drama. Nyong’o gave Duke a tour of the college and was a student doing work study on campus at the time. The group of friends decided to start a club for students of color called "Folks" to plan shows and congregate with one another.
About 20 pounds lighter and clean-shaven, Duke embarked on a series of auditions for "Black Panther." He received a call back within a month for each one.
Because of the secrecy of the project, Duke had no idea his agent had connected him with Marvel movie creators.
In a previous unsuccessful audition for another movie, Duke was told it was for an “untitled Disney project” and found out months later that the missed role was for "Star Wars."
The prospective actors were kept in different rooms and security had to escort the people auditioning so they did not know who else was in the film.
Sterling K. Brown, “This is Us” actor and future co-star, was sitting next to Duke to audition, which made him lose all hope and think, "‘Oh boy, this is just for the experience.’"
Duke earned a screen test with Chadwick Boseman, who played T’Challa and the "Black Panther," which included a fake fight scene. Conveniently enough, Duke came from a wrestling background and was able to pick Boseman up but, in the process, he split his pants down the middle.
Duke and the writers in the room were able to make light of the situation.
"If my booty is meant to be out and get some breeze, then today was that day," Duke joked.
Duke said he is proud to be a part of a film that represents the black community since he said the demographic is not well reflected in the media they consume.
"Not even 'Black Panther' can fully capture who we are or what we are, but we were able to see portions of ourselves," Duke said.
Duke shared his frustration with traditional roles black movies portray. He said black people are mostly seen as a joke and are usually not portrayed in ways that uplift.
In Duke’s role in Jordan Peele’s upcoming movie, Us, he said black people are being seen in an Afro-futuristic dynamic. Even though details of the film have not been revealed, Duke said Peele is working to “interrogate American culture” by creating his own genre.
"Black people are usually the first casualties, he's flipping that trope and putting that on its head and seeing what else can be," Duke said.
Duke is grateful for his character in "Black Panther," since he was given an opportunity to unapologetically be himself.
Duke said he felt invisible at times in his life, even as a black man who hovers at 6-foot-4. Through characters like M’Baku and whoever else he portrays on screen, he said he is going to keep doing interjectory work on screen.
“I’m going to keep trying to tell stories of people who don't feel like they’re seen or heard,” Duke said in a comment to The Oracle. “I’m trying to bring life into characters that refuse to stay silent.”