[Opinion] On-Screen and Off, Chadwick Boseman Was a Hero

Wednesday, Sep 30, 2020

I love film and television but not because of the classics from the last century like The Godfather. I fell in love with film through the movies of the 2010s, and the actors who brought them to life. In those years, perhaps no one was as central to what makes cinema magical and powerful than Chadwick Boseman.

I was thirteen years old when I first saw Boseman on screen. In his breakout role in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, Boseman set the tone for his career, taking on an iconic figure in Black, and American, history. Having grown up playing baseball and softball, I could not have been more excited to see the movie, and was soon captivated by Boseman's performance as Robinson—a performance that was as authentic as it was because of Boseman's commitment to faithfully portraying Robinson. At that age, biopics were my entry point to history, dramatizations of events that were more accessible and entertaining than the thick books that lined the shelves of my house. So Boseman became my stand-in for Jackie Robinson. On the softball field, as I prepared to steal bases, Boseman's stance would play though my mind. Like Robinson already was, Boseman became a role model, an icon in his own right. 

This is the remarkable story of Boseman's career. The master of the biopic early in his career, he was able to both embody and transcend the monumental figures he played, becoming a star himself. Over four years, Boseman took on Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall—three men who could not be more different. Yet Boseman made it work, through dedication to each individual character. 

Describing to the New York Times' Reggie Ugwu how he embodied each role, Boseman explained, "You're a strong black man in a world that conflict with that strength, that really doesn't want you to be great. So what makes you the one who's going to stand tall?" 

After years of playing historical heroes, Boseman brought an imaginary one to life with the character of Black Panther. Explaining why he wanted to participate in the project, Boseman told the Lost Angeles Times, "The projects that I end up doing, that I want to be involved with in any way, have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people—to Black people. To see Black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams." 

Boseman's death hits especially hard in a year marked by the fragility of life, and especially Black life, due to the twin pandemics of disease and racism. The coronavirus and police violence have shaped this grief-filled year, both hitting Black people at disproportionate rates. Colon cancer, which took Boseman's life, similarly targets Black men.

Boseman's death hits especially hard because Boseman's work did so much to challenge and fight against the forces we face in this moment—the racism, the erasing of history, the isolationism. In a world of flux, Boseman felt like a reliable constant, an actor you knew would elevate a film and challenge us to imagine anew. 

Most artists are exceptional in their ability to tell stories; Boseman was remarkable because he lived them. He is known for playing transformational Black figures, in history and imagination, trailblazers in their respective stories. But in his career off-screen, Boseman himself reshaped the world around him. He expanded the possibilities for Black actors in Hollywood and started carving out space behind the camera as well. Being Black in Hollywood is not easy. A recent interview of John Boyega, best known for his role in the recent Star Wars trilogy, demonstrates the way the industry manipulates and casts aside Black actors. In an industry that measures success in dollars and cents, the fact that Black Panther grossed over a billion dollars worldwide proved that stories centered on Blackness, featuring Black actors, and created by a diverse crew, were worth investing in.

Boseman's influence extended beyond the industry. Through all of his movies he inspired moviegoers around the world, challenging preconceived ideas about who we could be. The countless stories of Black children elated by seeing Black Panther on screen reflect the power and potential of cinema. Boseman represented that power and that potential.

Potential is the crushing word here, because he had so much more to give. But in the few years we had him at the center of our collective cultural life, Boseman opened our minds, and more importantly our hearts, to a new way of being.

In an extremely online world, where you feel like you know everything about everyone, especially celebrities, Boseman was an exception. He felt both extremely familiar and accessible and genuine, but also maintained his privacy, more than we ever knew. Much has been said about his decision to keep his cancer to himself. I'm not interested in that conversation; everyone is entitled to their privacy. Anyone who know someone who has dealt with cancer knows how it ravages a person. It literally turns the body against itself. It is truly remarkable that Boseman accomplished all that he did while going through cancer, both the physical feat of playing Black Panther in Marvel movies and the mental fortitude to continue pursuing his dreams. 

There is a clip from the Black Panther press tour where Boseman describes how he had been talking with children with cancer who were hoping to live to see the film, but had passed away before they got the chance. In the video, Boseman struggles to tell the story, having to stop and gather himself. It was powerful at the time, but takes on a new level of meaning knowing that he himself was dealing with cancer at the time. In retrospect, it captures everything that made Boseman so beloved: his kindness, his resilience, and his inner strength. 

People often frame cancer as a battle, but I don't like that framing. It implies that you either win or lose. But dying of cancer doesn't diminish the strength of a person. You don't survive cancer because you're stronger or better than someone who doesn't. And you don't die of cancer for lack of will or fight. Boseman poured everything he had into his art. He knew his time was limited, so he chose to live on his own terms, do what he loved, and share his gift with the world.

The power of film comes from its ability to change the way we see the world around us, intellectually and dispositionally. Boseman knew its power. Stories from those who knew Boseman demonstrate the commitment he had to his craft, the intentionality and specificity behind each of his choices. He pushed Marvel to allow characters in Black Panther to use African accents, rather than British ones, to truly create a society free from colonialism. As Karen Attiah writes in the Washington Post, "Boseman opened a portal, proving that future stories rooted in Africanness and Blackness deserve to be fought for." Much of what makes the film truly revolutionary and meaningful is a result of Boseman's dedication to getting it right. In his letter of remembrance, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler described how Boseman "would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate." 

This thoughtful approach shaped Boseman's choices in all the roles he took on. Black actors are not often given agency in the roles offered to them. They are often confined to playing marginal characters who aren't given the interiority and complexity of white characters. Again, Boyega's interview calls attention to the way white characters are granted "nuance" that Black ones are denied. Boseman resisted that pattern.

In his remembrance, Boseman's agent wrote that Boseman turned down a role as an enslaved person because he didn't want to perpetuate portrayals of Black people in servitude; he wanted to depict people in triumph. He wasn't unaware of the reality of Black life throughout history, but the roles he chose allowed him to reframe people's perceptions, to show people fighting against and overcoming oppression. In his 2018 commencement speech at Howard University, his alma mater, Boseman told the audience, "When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny." 

By taking on these larger than life people and characters, Boseman not only elevated individual stories to new audiences, but opened new doors for future creators and actors by showing that complex stories centered on Black people could succeed. Opening this path means Boseman's mission won't end with him, but will be carried on by all those he inspired, the creators and the audiences.

Everything Boseman fought through and for over the past four years means that although he is gone, his art lives forever. Through his art, Boseman lives forever. 

Boseman's Black Panther is no longer, but for generations, children and adults alike will see themselves reflected in Black Panther

There seemed to me there was some sort of cosmic meaning that Boseman passed away on the day Major League Baseball was honoring Jackie Robinson. Like Robinson, Boseman will be remembered not only for his accomplishments in his career, but what he did for the world beyond it.

The "Wakanda Forever" phrase and salute has become so repeated as to sometimes feel it has lost its meaning. But when I rewatched Black Panther after Boseman's death, that scene struck me like the first time I saw it. Having defeated M'Baku to retain the Wakandan throne, T'Challa turns to the countless people on the cliffs around an above him, crosses his arms over his chest, and shouts with pride, "Wakanda Forever!" In unison, with the strength of a Black kingdom empowered and independent, the crowd resounds, "Wakanda Forever!"

Forever. That film, Boseman's performance, and everything it represents, will live on forever.

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