It’s a cliché to say that you don’t have the words, but some clichés became exactly that because they’re true. As the word raced across internet Friday night, two things were certain: people were stunned, and the celebrated actor Chadwick Boseman was dead at age 43 after a four-year struggle with colon cancer. It’s hard to articulate why Boseman meant so much to so many people in such a short time, but that makes it no less true. Whether playing Supreme Court Justices or glass-ceiling-shattering baseball legends or the Godfather of Soul or the Avenger King of Wakanda, Chadwick Boseman entertained, inspired, and did his level best to make the world better.
Chadwick Boseman Tribute to Denzel Washington (Uploaded to YouTube by TNT)
Chadwick Boseman graduated from high school in South Carolina in 1995; he’d already written his first play as a junior. He headed to Howard University, and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Directing. Among his teachers was Phylicia Rashād; in a story that’s now part of Hollywood lore, Rashād reached out to other Black actors to find financial support to send Boseman and others to the Oxford Mid-Summer Program of the British American Drama Academy in London. Boseman discovered that the person who was responsible for his own trip getting funded was Denzel Washington. In 2019, Boseman had the chance to thank Washington publicly at the AFL Life Achievement Award event honoring Washington.
The trailer for 42 (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Trailers)
Boseman broke into television in 2003, working on a number of shows, including the NBC dramas Third Watch, ER, and Law & Order. His film debut came in 2008 in The Express: The Ernie Davis Story, in which he played future NFL Hall of Fame halfback Floyd Little. Although he was still writing plays and considering giving up acting altogether so he could direct, he broke through to greater notice with 2013’s 42, in which he played baseball legend and agent of change Jackie Robinson. After that, he essayed another immortal Black American in 2014’s Get on Up; as James Brown, Boseman got most of the film’s critical attention. David Denby of The New Yorker wrote “Chadwick Boseman gives a startling and galvanic performance,” while James Berardinelli of ReelViews wrote “Whatever failings the film may have, none can be laid at the feet of lead actor Chadwick Boseman, whose performance is phenomenal.”
In October of 2014, at a surprise event orchestrated by Marvel Studios to announce their “Phase 3” line-up, Boseman was introduced to wild applause as the actor that would be playing T’Challa, the Black Panther. Robert Downey, Jr. quipped, “Get used to all that applause, by the way.” He wasn’t wrong. Boseman debuted as Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, making a strong impression in a film that was packed with stars (and also introduced Tom Holland’s Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe). But that was just preamble to the phenomenon that would ensue when Boseman headed up the Black Panther solo film in 2018.
The Black Panther trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Marvel Entertainment)
There was something in the air leading up the debut of the film, and it exploded to life on an extraordinary President’s Day weekend when it took in $242 million in just four days. Director Ryan Coogler had made a film built on Afrofuturism and a keen sense of identity that also stayed steeped in Marvel continuity and that brand’s mix of action and humor. The film featured complex moral questions and challenged audiences with a villain (Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger) that had an understandable motive. Boseman was the gravitational force at its center, struggling with the burden of leadership and the understanding that earlier generations might have made grave mistakes. He acted with regal bearing and purpose, believable as both hero and human. He anchored the film to seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, a first for a super-hero film.
Across the Black community, the film itself became something of a celebration; for millions of children, here, finally, was a hero of an order of magnitude that also looked liked them. The movie made over a $1.347 billion; it was even the first film shown in Saudi Arabia after a 30-year theater ban. It was a super-hero movie, but it mattered. It resonated through all levels of culture. The “Wakandan Salute” became commonplace, and Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo, with as assist from Boseman, wore a Black Panther mask in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
In 2017, Boseman played Thurgood Marshall in the film Marshall, which dramatized one of his early cases, years before he became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. He returned to the role of Black Panther in Avengers: Infinity War in 2018 and Avengers: Endgame in 2019. Endgame wrapped up its run as the biggest moneymaker in box office history. 2020 saw the release of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which matched Boseman up with a strong ensemble cast. He had already filmed the as-yet-unreleased Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the work of August Wilson, and Black Panther 2 had been scheduled for 2022, but had not yet begun production.
However, as Boseman was building his Black Panther character across the MCU, one thing was kept from public view. He had been diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016. Boseman quietly battled it, through what the actor’s Instagram called “countless surgeries and chemotherapy,” for the last four years. The disease progressed to stage IV, and the actor passed on August 28, 2020 “in his home, with his wife and his family by his side.”
Public statements came quickly. Marvel Studios released a statement that began with, “Our hearts are broken.” Fellow Avenger Brie “Captain Marvel” Larson posted “I’m honored to have the memories I have. The conversations, the laughter.” Chris “Captain America” Evans tweeted “Chadwick was special. A true original.” Director Jordan Peele said, “This is a crushing blow.” And literally thousands more.
Kyle and his book. (Photo by Troy Brownfield, January 19, 2018).
Chadwick Boseman touched a chord. He struck an electric nerve in the heart of a world that needed reminded that heroes don’t have to look like you. If you’ll allow a personal digression, my youngest son was 11 when Black Panther was released. He and his brother had been Marvel fans basically since birth (it’s a thing that happens in a house where dad writes comic books). He came to me ahead of the movie and told me that he had something he wanted to buy with his own money that he’d been saving. I asked what it was, and he showed me online. It was the DK Publishing Marvel Black Panther: The Ultimate Guide. And I was proud, proud that my little white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy saw an awesome hero that he wanted to know more about. Proud that he knew that a hero didn’t have to look like him, even as it was so important to so many that he did. And it wasn’t just that one book; action figures, hoodies, basketball shorts, throw rugs, Funko Pops . . . that kid was and is a legit fan. The boys are asleep as I write this; it’s going to break their hearts to hear it. It breaks mine to write it.
Jack Kirby, who co-created Black Panther with Stan Lee, was born 103 years ago today. A beloved artist, they called him “The King.” It may be fitting that Chadwick Boseman passed on Jack Kirby’s birthday, which is also the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the venue for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Remarkably, August 28 is also celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball. The loss of Chadwick Boseman is a generational loss. Although he had accomplished much by 43, we will forever speculate on his untapped potential. His body of work will continue to inspire, both as a super-hero and as the all-too-human characters that he so frequently played. The Saturday Evening Post extends its condolences to his family, his friends, his colleagues, and his fans. Wakanda Forever.
Featured image: DFree / Shutterstock