Black Panther Interview: Winston Duke On Playing The Leader Of The Rival Wakandan Tribe (Exclusive)

M'Baku back in Wakanda Forever

Later this week, mainstream audiences will be introduced to the world of Wakanda, and the five tribes that make up the isolationist country. One such tribe is known as the Jabari Tribe, and unlike the others in Wakanda, they don’t really interact. Instead, they retreat to the mountains, upholding the old ways of Wakanda, and very much disagree with the direction T’Chaka had taken the country.

The leader of the tribe is M’Baku, known in the comics as Man-Ape. In Black Panther, he is portrayed by actor Winston Duke, best known for his TV work on shows like Person of Interest and Modern Family.

LRM had a chance to sit down with the actor and discuss the character of M’Baku, his importance in the world of Wakanda, and the experience of seeing the movie for the first time.

What was it like to see the film on the big screen for the first time?

Duke: This was my first time seeing the film at all. So it was really extremely surreal for me. For a long time, we were doing this film and all we’re exposed to are these green screens, and we’re just imagining and believing that — that’s a mountain, that’s a waterfall, that’s that. You might have some of the water and some of the rock formations but you don’t get the scope. And then when you finally see what the entire thing is, it’s breathtaking, it’s staggering. Watching that, watching my performance, watching and rooting my friends and colleagues on, that’s just something incredibly special as well, so it was a lot to take in. The imagery, a lot of strong imagery in the film, so that was a lot.

I loved your character …

Duke: Thank you.

It’s funny. It wasn’t really expected, but he actually had a sense of humor.

Duke: I think it’s a humor that comes from deep self-awareness, because I think he’s fully self-aware of how others view him and he uses that to his advantage. He uses the fact that there might be narratives around him and his people, since essentially they sequestered themselves to the mountains. In this world, there would be hundreds of years they’ve been living up there. Generations upon generations, so they don’t really interact with Wakanda proper at all. So no one really knows …

Now that we’re talking about Jabari tribe then — the tribe that’s all but separated from the other four tribes of Wakanda.

Duke: Yes, yes the Jabari’s.

Tell us about your character.

Duke: M’Baku is the leader of the Jabari tribe, and the Jabari tribe are one of the main tribes of Wakanda, but they disagree on the use of vibranium within the country, and the importance placed on vibranium. So they’ve gone and they retreated into the mountains, and no one talks to them, they don’t deal with Wakandan politics or their economy or anything like that. They have their own society, and they believe in traditional values, valuing the old way, and most importantly they pray to a different god. We pray to the gorilla god Hanuman, while the rest of Wakanda, they pray to Bast, the panther goddess. As a result, you have two different cultures within this one country, and we believe in these isolationist values and we don’t want the borders to open, we don’t want the world to continue the way T’Chaka’s been taking it.

T’Chaka was T’Challa’s father and he went to the U.N. to try to open up and open a discourse with the rest of the world. They’ve been watching that, they pay attention but they don’t usually get involved. So when you meet me, you’re now coming to this really great place of transition, where, Wakanda is deciding how to move forward in history. My view is that we need to stay closed, we need to go back to the old ways to move forward.

So did you, for your character, did you have to do any training? Cause you did have the main battle scene.

Duke: Yeah, so we did a lot of training, we did a lot of fight training. I think I was training for like five days a week doing different fighting and … what would you call that? …

Like a specific type of training?

Duke: It’s like the fight choreography training. We did fight choreo, I was also in the gym five, six days a week lifting. But it was our goal to specifically create a guy who’s big and strong, but doesn’t have this aesthetic value. So he doesn’t work out in the gym, he works out in the mountains. He might be running all the time, running up in the mountains, and lifting big rocks and throwing them, but he’s not doing reps.

A natural beast.

Duke: Yeah, he’s a natural big strong guy and he’s very charismatic, loved by his people. It was really important for us to tell that story even within the physicality of who he is, and that’s how he fights, he’s a tank. So he’s built to take a hit and hit you back and he doesn’t sustain the injury. His weapon is called a Nabcurie, it’s this staff with a big gourd on the end and he swings, and he could take out three, four men at once, with one swing. That’s the kind of guy he is.

I have to say, your character was totally intimidating at first, but I totally loved him later on, he’s like a softy and he has a sense of humor. I was like, “aww I like him.”

Duke: I think he’s a guy, like I said, has a lot of self-awareness. He’s a leader and we also needed to tell the story that he’s a guy whose beloved. He’s not a despot, he’s not some crazy man in the mountains, his people love him. He actually wants the best for them, and in turn, he wants the best for Wakanda, so he is a Wakandan. The other thing is that this movie is a Wakandan story, so really what everyone is fighting about is where and how is Wakanda going to move into the future? How do you move into the future? Where does that take us? What are the results of staying isolated? What are the results of opening up and going out into the world and how do you do that? These are all the things he cares about and he’s attached to, but he might come from a place of, “these are my people and I need to secure their futures first.” He’s a beloved strong charismatic leader with great integrity, he just has different ideas about how to get to the same destination.

So this charismatic character, we’re looking forward to seeing in “Avengers: Infinity War.” Is there anything you can share?

Duke: I can tell you that, you know … plays a big role in Wakanda’s story in that film, and the role that Wakanda plays in the Avengers: Infinity War. He will be tested, as you can suspect, with Thanos coming and doing his thing. You’re going to like what you see, it’s going to be epic. Black Panther‘s revolutionary and then the world and all the things Wakanda creates, all that is tested in Infinity War.

Well, great thank you, for providing that info on that. If I may do you have any projects coming up?

Duke: Right now I’m in Marvel, right now I’m in the MCU. Right now I’m deeply in the MCU and just staying present as to what else is going to come my way. This is my first film so I’m just really being here and experiencing this. This won’t happen again — or rather my first time won’t happen again, so I need to be present and enjoy it instead of thinking about what the next thing is, because the next thing will come and then I’ll be present in that moment and then I’ll keep doing that over and over. But I want to be here because this is the first time a movie like this is ever being made. The reception is great, the content is really fantastic, and to some degree, this won’t happen again, this specific moment won’t happen again so I’m just enjoying that.

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Nancy Tapia

Nancy Tapia has been an interviewer for LRM and Latino-Review Media since 2011. Former UCLA Bruin specializes in Operations Management. Covering entertainment has been an unexpected lively journey. Always open to the next, new experience. From solo traveling to adding a new peak to her personal 100 Hike Challenge. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @inancytapia

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