NEW YORK — Winston Duke is giving a 40-minute TED Talk about the invisible strings of power to an audience of one. He’s inside the American Museum of Natural History’s basement cafeteria, a fluorescent-lit cavern packed with clanking silverware and crying babies. This isn’t a non sequitur. In fact, this is the direct result of asking the 32-year-old actor one seemingly simple question about his new movie, “Us”: Uhhh, what the heck did I just see?
“Give me a piece of paper for my gum,” Duke says. “Because we ’bouts to talk,” he adds, stamping a Joan Riversian emphasis on that last bit.
Duke doesn’t just want to tawk. He needs to. Best known for his scene-stealing and thirst-trapping role as the “great gorilla” M’Baku in “Black Panther,” the Yale-trained actor is cerebral in a way that shouldn’t be surprising but is. He’s constantly thinking, analyzing, breaking it down, while punctuating each thought with a conspiratorial “right?” He speaks not in paragraphs but in dissertations, like a professor who really wants his kids to get it, you know.
“I relish this opportunity,” Duke says, halfway through his oral argument about what “Us” is trying to teach its audience about the world. The hotly anticipated follow-up to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning thriller “Get Out” is expected to be quite heady. Duke doesn’t just want to be a part of the inevitable think pieces, Twitter threads and roundtables about the film, almost a modern-day take on the French Revolution but with crazy clones.
“I want to potentially lead this discussion,” he says.
And he does just that — launching into several informed treatises on American society, sins knocking at your door, sneaky power structures and privilege, always privilege. Duke’s Caribbean lilt bleeds through every time he says the word, drawing it out into three punctuated syllables — pri-vi-lege — that give the concept extra consideration.
But, seriously, what is this movie about?
On its surface, “Us” tells the tale of a well-off family on a beach vacation that goes violently wrong. The film follows the Wilsons, ostensibly led by Duke’s naive, sitcom dad, Gabe, but really by Lupita Nyong’o’s tough-mom character, Adelaide, as they battle a group of doppelgangers who have come to take over. It’s not a popcorn flick. In two hours and 60 seconds, there are Bible verses, bunnies, scary amusement park rides, brass scissors and boat shoes.
The chief concern of Duke’s character — who does most of his fighting in dad glasses, a Howard University sweatshirt and loafers — is whether his neighbors have a bigger boat and a better car. When the clones show up, it’s whether said neighbors would very much like to impale him.
“The movie is strongly about cultures of power and what they look like and how you participate in them,” he says. “It’s also a commentary on the perils of the American Dream.” That’s the very ambition Duke, who moved with his mother and sister to New York from the island of Tobago when he was 9, likes to dissect.
He first came to this museum with his sister when he was a kid. He kept coming back again and again, enthralled by the planetarium permanent exhibit, which he says changed his life at 19. He was doing a big think then, as you do, about life and death and the meaning of it all when the vastness of the cosmos put everything into perspective.
“Being an outsider by default gives you a place to view things . . . because you’re not perfectly in it. So you got to look at it with fresh new eyes and wonder why it works and why it does the things that it does,” he said.
In 2016, Duke was working semiregular, one-off roles in TV when he got the call that would catapult his fame. At the time, the actor was unsure about his future.
“Am I working enough to sustain a life, to build a family, buy a home in this country? Am I doing enough?” he recalls asking himself.
“You mean achieving the American Dream?” I counter.
“Girl!” Duke emphasizes. “Girl, you feel me.”
Self-definition, another theme threaded throughout “Us,” is a big deal to Duke, who has been defined thus far by his superhero breakthrough as M’Baku. Vanity Fair dubbed him “a royal Wakandan thirst trap.” BuzzFeed recently made him read aloud several “thirst tweets” (like sexting a stranger in public), most of which are unprintable. His “Black Panther” co-star Daniel Kaluuya told E! News that Duke was a “star” in the making. “Look at him light up the screen. Look at him ascend,” praised Kaluuya, who starred in “Get Out.” In April, Duke stars in another blockbuster superhero movie, “Avengers: Endgame.”
“I didn’t plan to break out,” Duke says. “I just planned to make really bold choices and lean into whatever it is that I do. And I’ll always do that. As prominent or as nuanced as a performance is, all I can tell you is that it’s intentional.”
In one of the most memorable lines in “Us,” the Wilsons ask their deranged doppelgangers who they are. “We’re Americans,” replies Nyong’o’s evil twin. So, basically, the film is about what happens when your chickens come home to roost, and you had no idea you had a farm.
“Us” is also about race, although it isn’t the central issue like in “Get Out.”
“Anything that has to do with black people in a racially charged world is about race because our skin is politicized, right? And our experience is deeply defined by seeing the world through the experiences of our skin, right? So black people on vacation already is about race,” Duke says.
It’s hard to respond with anything but an “umph” and “right, right” when listening to him go full professor mode.
“My brain explodes with everything,” he says.
Duke emerges from the cafeteria. His first stop is a quaint, life-size diorama of Dutch settlers meeting Native Americans for the first time. Above the scene is a newly added dialogue box that reads, “The scene offers only stereotypical representations and ignores how complex and violent colonization was for native people.” Duke considers this for a moment before launching into a debate about Confederate statues. Do we wipe away history or just reimagine it?
The museum was closing by the time Duke, who never got to the planetarium (it was closed for a private event), steps out onto Central Park West. He takes a look at a controversial statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback. Standing beneath Roosevelt is a half-naked Native American man and an African man.
Duke is stunned but not surprised. It’s the 3-D representation of everything he spent the last hour or more trying to explain.
Earlier, he had described privilege as “not having to ask a question because it doesn’t occur to you as a problem.” The statue, an emblem of white supremacy that no one in Duke’s entourage noticed until, well, everyone did, has stood outside the museum since 1940. It has been the subject of a protest and was vandalized in 2017.
Duke’s photographer scrolls through details about the statue on his phone as the group heads to their car. Questions abound, and Duke, as always, is prepared to answer them.