Much like his debut feature Get Out, Jordan Peele’s Us is designed to be watched on repeat to grasp all the Easter eggs and foreshadowing you missed the first time. Amid the callback to Froot Loops segregated from milk and a twist ending that will call into question everything you just saw, there’s another thing worth a second look: Winston Duke’s subversive take on onscreen masculinity.
Duke plays Gabe Wilson, the goofy, fun-loving Dad of the family–a perfect foil to his wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) whose increasingly apprehensive disposition proves accurate when a mob of doppelgängers (aka, the Tethered) crash their vacation home on a deadly mission. As the protagonist of the film, Adelaide is on a specific journey that’s the catalyst for the plot’s progression. Gabe, on the other hand, could’ve easily been a filler character, a one-dimensional patriarch whose main job is to complete the portrait of a normal family–but neither Duke nor Peele do one-dimensional.
“Gabe is not your classic male in cinema. He doesn’t stay quiet. He’s not brooding. He’s not internal–actually he’s incredibly external,” Duke says. “He overly communicates. He can be action-driven while still being deeply in process and hesitant. And that kind of duality, that kind of range and spectrum, I wasn’t really very aware of or saw very often in cinema. I think we get to make a comment about how we’re never one thing.”
When Gabe confronts the Tethered on his driveway, he’s in alpha male mode with a baseball bat at the ready. His plan doesn’t quite pan out (i.e., getting dragged out of the house by his doppelgänger and taken out to a lake to drown). But when the Wilsons eventually gain an inch of higher ground, it’s Adelaide who convinces everyone to spring into action. Gabe’s bravado has melted away once he realizes what they’re up against and he’s left with a suggestion of staying put and waiting it out, which is immediately vetoed by Adelaide bellowing, “You don’t get to make the decisions anymore!”
The fact that Gabe is allowed to go from protector to abdicator shouldn’t be such a revolutionary concept in a film like this. However, Duke is a black man who clocks in at a reported 6’5″, 230 lbs, which easily boxes him into roles where masculinity is defined more sharply. After his breakout as the imposing tribal leader M’Baku in Black Panther, Duke’s offers fell into a similar vein: macho, aggressive, and so forth. Peele almost passed on casting Duke for Us because he thought a man of his stature wouldn’t be convincing as someone in danger.
“My lived experience often feels very constrictive and defining, like when you’re a big black man and you gotta be this way. You have to talk this way. You have to behave this way,” he says. “I’m defined by so many boxes that in my work I want to redefine some of those words that have power in my life.”
“‘Strength,’ that’s a big one in my life that I’d love to keep interrogating and challenging,” he continues. “How do we define strength in our society? There are certain words that we give too much power to, and we don’t ask anything of them. We don’t hold those words and how we use the words accountable.”
And Nyong’o helped Duke define some of those words.
Having first met while studying at the Yale School of Drama (Nyong’o, class of 2012; Duke, 2013) and then starring together in Black Panther, there was a familiarity that gave Duke the mental freedom to move beyond what’s expected of his physical frame.
“We could just honestly riff off of each other. Anytime we were in the scene together romantically we just got to play. I could just try that bed scene [where] I’m splayed out, ready, without wondering if it’s too much,” Duke says. “It’s something that I’ve wondered about in the past with my size and all these different things: How much is too much and how much is enough? That’s something I’m always negotiating as a tall man with a lot of size and presence. I’ve always been told that truth has no size. So that’s the space that I live in. I love characters that aren’t afraid to take up space, but the man himself while doing the work wonders.”
Ultimately, Duke wants the roles that he takes to have masculinity be a conversation rather than a fixed idea–regardless of whether it’s part of the plot or whether or not Duke is playing the lead.
“I want the character to undergo some change, whether it’s psychological, emotional, physical, something. That makes me feel as if I’m telling a complete story,” Duke says. “It’s the way I look at my life. I never look at myself as any one thing, and I believe I’m a product of many things coming together. That’s the truth that I would like to show with any character that I play. Change is everything to me.”
“There were certain questions that I wanted the audience to step away with and I’m excited to just see what they do take away from this movie,” he continues. “This movie is a conversation that doesn’t offer any answers. I’m very excited by that. I’m excited to be in conversation with community.”