In Memoriam: Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020)

Chadwick Boseman is dead. Even after reading about his death for the last few days, something about writing those words still seems impossible. The man who imbued Black Panther (2018) and countless other films with such vibrant life has been robbed of his own by colon cancer at the age of 43. He was diagnosed in 2016, and it was only after years of fighting it with chemotherapy and surgeries that he succumbed. He is survived by his wife Taylor Simone Ledward, and a body of work that will no doubt continue to resonate with audiences even as his life has ended.

I first saw Boseman on screen in The Express (2008), a small sports movie about Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) in which Boseman plays a supporting role. I cannot say that he stood out in any significant way when I watched The Express, but even with his limited screen time I did remember him, which says something because I remember very little else of that movie. I cannot identify exactly what it was, but rewatching clips from the film it seems to me now that even then, in his first feature role, Boseman radiated an easy charisma and effortless authenticity that remained a defining aspect of his movie star persona going forward. 

Boseman did not perform in another movie until four years later when he was in The Kill Hole (2012), but in those ensuing four years he was a regular presence in television, and that was where I really took notice of him. He guest-starred on a season four episode of Fringe (2008-2013) entitled “Subject 9” where he played a young man named Cameron James who was dealing with the aftermath of being a part of experiments run by Walter Bishop (John Noble). Fringe, which I believe is criminally underseen and forgotten, had a way of highlighting talent in guest performances, and “Subject 9” showcases in full the talent that Boseman would bring to blockbusters within a few years. When Cameron is stressed, his abilities summon an energy that wreaks havoc, and so he must work to contain his anxiety and face down this energy. Boseman imbues Cameron with a desperation and will to survive that is electric in his few scenes, and he goes toe-to-toe with the regular cast members who by that time were well settled into their characters and rhythms. 

Yet it was in 2013 that Boseman became a bona fide star when he portrayed Jackie Robinson in 42. The movie may not be anything special, but Boseman’s performance rises far above the film’s shortcomings. Robinson is a legendary figure, remembered as much for the facts of his life as the ethos he represented, that of quietly revolutionizing the racial politics of Major League Baseball. All of the charisma and poise from Boseman’s earlier roles blend perfectly into a performance that started his arc of redefining the bounds of a biopic performance. 42 made Boseman a rising star, but, more importantly, it marked the first of many instances where Boseman would step into the skin of revolutionary Black figures and bring them to life on screen. 

42 was the first salvo into an acting legacy, one now cut far too short, that would establish Boseman as a cultural icon in his own right. Get On Up (2014) saw him embody James Brown, and a few years later he once again delivered a show stopping performance in Marshall (2017), an otherwise rote film. But it was between those two movies that Boseman got the role that would turn him into an international star, and that is the character most people have turned to in the past few days when looking for a way to mourn the star. That character is King T’Challa, Marvel’s Black Panther. 

The broader pop cultural push for more inclusion of Black characters in blockbusters, and specifically in the near monocultural Marvel Cinematic Universe, led Kevin Feige and the minds at Marvel to announce Black Panther’s imminent inclusion in their ongoing cinematic endeavor in 2014. Boseman was announced as the star, and he made his first appearance as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War (2016) where he is at odds with the Avengers in the aftermath of his father’s death. Over the course of the film, all of our heroes end up coming together as we expect, but it is during that journey that Boseman steals every damn scene he is in. T’Challa is a prince, a warrior, and a son who must mourn his father. The emotional turbulence in that character could easily skew towards melodrama with a lesser performer, but Boseman crafts T’Challa into an effortlessly regal man who also bristles with the intensity of a soldier and will not hesitate to avenge his father. 

That appearance set the stage for Black Panther, the solo film that remains this critic’s single favorite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a Shakespearean epic that follows T’Challa as he, his family, and his dearest friends reckon with what it means to lead a country, and the ways in which tradition must be recalibrated. Boseman is surrounded by some of the greatest performers of multiple generations, including, but not limited to, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker. Yet he anchors every frame, and even when he is not the focus or the showiest part of the scene, his essence is undeniable. His journey from doubtful heir to confident king is captivating. Boseman displays a mastery of the physicality that is required to play a warrior like T’Challa, but even in his battle sequences he maintains the charm and regality that define every second of his screen time. To know now that he was fighting colon cancer while he made Black Panther only serves to make an incredible performance all the more moving.

For all of this talent that Boseman so obviously had, the tributes to him have all zeroed in on the same fact: he was, by all accounts, a remarkably loving and generous human being. T’Challa may only be a fictional character, but when he took on that mantle Boseman knew that he was also rising into the role of public representative. As the first Black actor to lead a major Marvel or DC release, he would be judged in the same way that Jackie Robinson was. Hollywood may not be segregated the way that Major League Baseball was when Robinson broke through, but the pressure placed on Black actors to be inscrutable is immense, and Boseman took it head on with grace and fire in his heart. He used his fame to be a voice for social justice, to comfort those in pain, and to be the very leader that he embodied so flawlessly on screen. It is usually folly to wish that actors would be like the characters they portray, but to have watched Boseman and to now read the statements from those who knew him best, it seems that he and T’Challa were both men to follow and look up to.

I am heartbroken that what should have been a full life and career has been cut mercilessly short, but more than anything I am devastated that such a man who was such a beacon of hope and power is no longer with us. Those of us who remain must work to continue that which he and so many others we have lost strived for: a better future. Boseman leaves us a legacy of work that speaks to the power of individuals banding together to fight against tyranny and oppression, and we must listen to those lessons and honor the man and his work by doing as much as we can to further what he stood for and represented. Rest in power Chadwick Boseman. Wakanda forever. 

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