“As an African-American actor, a lot of our stories haven’t been told.”—Chadwick Boseman
American actor Chadwick Boseman‘s death, at the age of 43, shocked the film industry. Boseman, famous for his iconic portrayal of Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, had been diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago but nobody except his closest associates knew of his condition. Boseman was not just an actor but an artist-activist who was fighting for the appropriate representation of the Black community in the highly hegemonized world of Hollywood.
Born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, Boseman was drawn to the potential and power of the performing arts since he was a school student. Initially, his creative energy was primarily focused on becoming a writer and director. When his basketball teammate was shot and killed, he wrote and staged his first play, Crossroads, in his junior year. “I just had a feeling that this was something that was calling me,” he said. “Suddenly, playing basketball wasn’t as important.” Years later, his play Deep Azure would go on to be performed by professional theatre companies and even win a few awards. In 2000, he graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in directing. He and some of his classmates were accepted to the famous Oxford Mid-Summer Program of the British American Drama Academy in London but they could not afford to go. Boseman’s mentor, Phylicia Rashad, reached out to her friend Denzel Washington and he helped them raise funds for the program. Boseman later revealed, “I really only started acting because I wanted to know what the actors were doing, how to communicate with the actors. And then I realized I’m supposed to do all of it.”
During the beginning of his career, Boseman lived in Brooklyn and worked as the drama instructor in the Schomburg Junior Scholars Program at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York. He spent his time teaching and studying black history, a field that he was extremely passionate about. “I started out as a writer and a director,” he recalled. “I started acting because I wanted to know how to relate to the actors.” However, in 2008, he moved to Los Angeles to establish himself as the successful actor we know him as today. Before his first starring role in the 2013 film 42—in which he played the role of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson—he had appeared in various television series like Lincoln Heights, Persons Unknown and All My Children, from which he was fired after he complained about the racist stereotypes in the script. The role subsequently went to Michael B. Jordan. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era, was the one that took his career to the next level. “Some people have said, ‘You don’t need to do any more biopics,’ but I don’t agree with that,” said Boseman. “A lot of our stories haven’t been told.” He was an inspirational figure right from the start.
In 2014, Boseman starred as the American singer, songwriter James Brown in Get On Up. Boseman was initially worried about not being able to live up to the monumental expectations that are associated with playing such a larger-than-life icon. “I was eventually confident I could pull it off,” the actor said. “But I wasn’t confident at first. I think everybody had a question whether it was possible to replicate James Brown on stage. I watched him for a couple of weeks when I was making the decision. Then I had a conversation with Mick Jagger and I talked myself into it. I felt I was right. But you can’t be 100 per cent sure.” Typically, he was fantastic as Brown and brought him back to life with his performance. Upon hearing of the actor’s untimely demise, the James Brown Family Foundation issued this statement: “We are at a loss of words at the moment. Chadwick did our dad justice in the film and it was a joy to work with him during our New York, Atlanta, and Augusta movie premiere of the film.”
Boseman furthered his belief in the urgency of shining a spotlight on the significant stories of the black community with his compelling portrayal of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, in the 2017 film Marshall which revolved around the 1941 case of the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. When he was asked about how he related his own experiences as a black man to that of Marshall, the actor said, “I’m from Anderson, S.C., but I grew up in the South. So I know what it is to ride to school and have Confederate flags flying from trucks in front of me and behind me, to see a parking lot full of people with Confederate flags and know what that means.”
He added, “I’ve been stopped by police for no reason. I’ve been called boy and the ‘n-word’ and everything else that you could imagine. Along with the great hospitality that is in the South, that is part of it.
“And so I understand when it is to exist in that space and find your manhood. And so I don’t think that that is a thing that has gone completely foreign to our existence right now. So part of my, I guess, ability to face it is because I faced it. I failed at facing it. I get the opportunity in playing the character to relive those things and do things a different way.” Boseman braved all of it and used the importance of his platform to educate the masses about widespread issues of racism and inequality. It is also important to note that he did all of this while he was suffering from cancer.
Although he had appeared in the 2016 MCU film Captain America: Civil War as T’Challa, it wasn’t until the iconic 2018 blockbuster Black Panther that he achieved an almost mythical status. Black Panther was the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and it is still the highest-grossing Marvel project not to carry the word “Avengers” in its title. A powerful commentary on the evils of colonialism and the liberation of the black community, Boseman dismantled a lot of stereotypes with his majestic performance. “There was a time period where people would ask me questions about whether or not an audience could sit through a movie with a lead character that spoke with that accent,” he said at the time about the importance of a superhero with an African accent. “I became adamant about the fact that it’s not true.” The film was a huge critical as well as commercial success, garnering several awards and nominations, including three Academy Awards. Boseman received multiple nominations as well, winning a Screen Actors Guild Award, among others.
“I hesitate to say this is bigger, those are real historical figures and moments,” the actor said of Black Panther, “But what this is, it’s a cultural moment that is happening right now. We’re not remembering breaking the colour barrier or how funk was created. We’re living this.”
Boseman’s achievements were already extremely impressive at the time but they seem even more powerful and heartbreaking in retrospect. He wasn’t just battling enemies on screen and racial injustice off screen, he was also fighting against something as terrible as cancer. The actor was also disillusioned with the biased practices of Hollywood, he famously said: “It’s possible for there to be a Chris Pine, or a Chris Evans and Chris O’Donnell and a Chris Hemsworth and all the other Chrises, but it can only be one of us at a time? … With us, it’s like we have to kill each other before we get there.”
After the unprecedented success of Black Panther, Boseman appeared in later instalments of the Avengers series (Infinity War and Endgame). He also starred in Brian Kirk’s 2019 action thriller 21 Bridges as an intelligent NYPD detective. His last film is Spike Lee’s wonderful 2020 effort, Da 5 Bloods, where Boseman plays one of the four African American veterans who return to Vietnam in search of gold only to be confronted with the horrors of a violent history. While speaking about Boseman’s character, Lee said, “This character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa. Chad is a superhero! That character is Christlike! Notice the way [the cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel] shot him. There’s light from heaven coming down from above on him.”
Chadwick Boseman’s death arrived as an immeasurable loss for the black community as well as the world of cinema. The talented actor was one of the leading voices of his generation and it is a tragedy that we won’t see more from him, be it acting performances or the directorial efforts he always wanted to undertake. There has been, however, a posthumous release of Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in which he stars opposite Viola Davis in a beautiful swansong. His bravery and efforts in the face of insurmountable odds will ensure that he will always remain an inspiration for each and every one of us.