How Spenser Confidential‘s Winston Duke Is Defying Hollywood Stereotypes

Photo: courtesy of Netflix.
Don’t try and put Winston Duke in a box. 
Standing at six feet five inches (swoon), he wouldn’t fit in one anyway. The 33-year-old actor is working overtime to make sure that as a tall, burly Black man, he doesn’t get pigeonholed into certain roles.
You may have first met Duke on the CBS series Person of Interest, but you likely fell for him as Black Panther's M’Baku, the only man in the world who should not be fined for man-spreading. Duke played King T’Challa’s rival with ease, affecting a Nigerian accent so authentic that even I was fooled — and I was born in Lagos. He followed the lust-worthy role by starring in Jordan Peele’s horror film Us alongside Yale Drama School alum and friend Lupita Nyong’o; goofy and well-meaning (but admittedly useless in the face of bloodthirsty tethers), his character Gabe provided the perfect comedic relief from the flick's more terrifying moments.
In his new Netflix project Spenser Confidential, now available for streaming, Duke sprinkles his magic on an MMA fighter with a heart of gold. Spenser Confidential follows an ex-cop (Mark Wahlberg) who finds himself at the centre of a deep rooted corruption ring after his five-year bid in prison. Driven by a sense of justice, Spenser solicits the help of his roommate Hawk (Duke) and his girlfriend Cissy (the hilarious Iliza Shlesinger) to take down the shady Boston police department.
"I have a saying: Go where you're wanted," Duke shared over the phone. It's the reason that he said yes to the film in the first place. Wahlberg and director Peter Berg specifically sought him out for the role of Spenser's partner-in-crimefighting, offering Duke an opportunity to build a world with them. He said yes, and the team immediately began brainstorming how they would retell Ace Watkins' Wonderland for a new generation.
Duke approached the character of Hawk with a sense of determination. Fans of the Spenser stories have seen Hawk in the novels and on the 80s television series Spenser for Hire, but Duke's portrayal is grounded in the here and now. Yes, he goes off in the ring, but Hawk also drinks oat milk to protect the environment and has an expansive crystal collection to curate the vibes.
"I wanted Hawk to be a child of today, to be eating and drinking the new age food," he explained. "To be totally confident in his of his definitive traits is how he treats himself and his body."
From his mannerisms down to the styling his hair, Hawk is a product of Duke's thoughtfulness. Tall, brawny, and clothed in bright colours, Hawk doesn't blend in with the crowd, which gives him a unique vantage point. His identity forces him to navigate Boston in a completely different way than Spenser would because of privilege.
"Hawk has the ability to see through everything else," Duke said. "He's able to see the gaps [that Spenser can't] because he has an awareness that encompasses the whole world."
Duke possesses a similar sense of the world, particularly where people's ideas of him are concerned. He knows how folks see him — there's no getting around his impressive stature — but the actor has a knack for adding texture to his characters. M'Baku is a mountain of a man, stubbornly traditional and struggling against Wakanda's wave of modernity. Gabe is equally hulking but more suited for flirting with his wife and telling embarrassing dad jokes than sparring with his doppelgänger. And while Hawk may throw a few men into a brick wall, he would never, ever hurt an animal. There's always more to Duke's characters than just their strength.
Duke's next role will be in the cerebral science fiction film Nine Days, in which he stars as a lonely being who gets to choose who is born into the world. It's a departure from the last few movies in his filmography, but that's on purpose. Duke can go a few rounds in the boxing ring, but he can also bring you to tears or make you quietly ponder your existence. It's called talent.
"This me being clear with my intentions about the kind of artist that I want to be," he shared. "I don't want to be boxed in or put into any corner based on the narratives that are associated with my body."
"I'm a big guy," Duke continued, eliciting a toothy grin from me, the unofficial vice president of his fan club. "It would be easy to box me in as an action star or a brawler, but I want all of my characters to be infused with a lot of thought, to show them evolving. I'm definitely making a choice about the roles that I choose to interrogate as an actor."
He's not interested in limiting himself to any one type of role, and with his acting ability, Duke will never have to worry about that.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series