Farewell to the King: A Tribute to Chadwick Boseman
By Mother Brain
In my first blog piece at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I expressed a great deal of personal pain that I was feeling which gave me perspective on the importance of living more than burring my mind into work. Between the pandemic, an upcoming consequential election, and my own anxiety about planning my future film projects post-pandemic, the date of Friday, August 28 was already difficult for me to get through as I was headed into my birthday weekend. I had just finished watching TV and preparing to hit the shower when I received the heartbreaking notification on my phone: Chadwick Boseman, star of Marvel’s Black Panther, passed away after a 4-year battle with colon cancer. I dropped down on my bed in disbelief almost immediately. Broken.
Not since the 2016 passing of Prince and Carrie Fisher as well as the recent tragedy of Kobe Bryant and his daughter have I felt this riddled with sadness about a high-profile celebrity. This was the star of one of the biggest and most culturally significant movies in cinema history. Regardless of the built-in Marvel brand, Black Panther broke the myth that black movies do not sell in Hollywood. Audiences of all cultures flocked to the theaters in Star Wars-level numbers, celebrities were arranging special screenings for young people who could not afford to go to the movies, black children around the world had a new hero to look up to. At the time of the film’s release when I was working as a school photographer, I cannot tell you the amount of schools I worked at where kids wanted to do the Wakanda Forever salute in their class pictures. Boseman had not only arrived as a worldwide movie star. He brought his humility to the spotlight. I never want to dismiss the fact that 180,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and their lives were just as significant as his. But for the purposes of this piece, I want to focus on the man, his work, and the impact he made on our lives in such a short period of time.
Like many moviegoers, my introduction to Boseman was in 2013 when he portrayed baseball’s trailblazer Jackie Robinson in 42. Prior to this, he had done various TV spots and theater. So, it was quite a big deal to fill Robinson’s shoes as various big-name actors and directors had previously desired to bring his story to the screen. The fact that Boseman was an unknown at the time only allowed audiences to fully suspend their disbelief in his embodiment of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ icon. You can feel his pain and struggle to be accepted by his teammates throughout the story. Yet, Boseman perfectly captured the athleticism of the man and an air of confidence on the field which conceals the underlying anger. Even if you think the story plays like a TV movie of the week, Boseman elevates it enough to deliver the necessary truth of Jackie Robinson’s life.
The next performance of Boseman that stood out to me was college linebacker Vontae Mack in Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day. Even though it was not a large role, it was certainly an important one as Kevin Costner’s GM role with the Cleveland Browns finds himself torn between him and a high rated quarterback as his number one draft pick. We never see Boseman’s Mack ever play on the field; however, the charisma he brings to his phone scenes with Costner gives you the belief that he’s the most capable athlete between the two. I love the scene when his name gets announced as the pick and how his reaction just never changes except for his eyes widening enough to get the sense of shock.
The same year as Draft Day came Boseman’s next standout performance as James Brown in Get on Up. There was no question how challenging it was for him to fill the shoes of the Godfather of Soul. Only Eddie Murphy’s hot tub sketch on SNL came the closest and he was in contention for the part for years. There was also a level of criticism that Boseman was immediately turning into the go-to actor for playing historical black icons which could have made his career more limiting. Personally, my issues with the film mostly come down to some makeup choices on him towards the later part of Brown’s life and the non-linear structure of the story. Issues aside though, Boseman gave 100% down to Brown’s voice, singing ability, and of course the dancing. I can never knock him in this role.
Before I get into Black Panther, I want to talk about the 3rd historical icon he played: Thurgood Marshall in Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall. Personally, this was my favorite of all of Boseman’s movies. In history class, I knew of Marshall as a lawyer for the NAACP and eventually the first black Supreme Court Justice of the United States. But the movie, which focused on Marshall’s time with the NAACP defending a black chauffeur accused of rape, gave me a completely different perspective about the man. Rather than being a boring standard courtroom drama, Marshall was like a gripping mystery with some thriller elements and Boseman made him into a charismatic hero who stood for justice and did not take crap from anyone. He made Marshall cool, cunning, and often times explosive. If you have to do a marathon of Boseman’s movies as a tribute, this has to be included.
When Boseman was announced as Black Panther for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War back in 2015, I was pretty excited. This was a chance for him to bring to life an underrated comic book character instead of embodying a historical icon. His voice and his instinctive decisions with the role would be all his. Sometimes I feel a little bad for him with that particular movie because I felt his introduction to the MCU was overshadowed by the fact that Spider-Man made his debut in it as well. But I loved the fact that Civil War was the first time we had multiple black superheroes in one movie including Boseman’s T’Challa, War Machine, and Falcon. So, he did not get lost in the shuffle given his importance in the story. Every Marvel actor involved in the film praised Boseman’s talent including Iron Man himself, Robert Downey, Jr., who praised him as a fully rounded movie star.
If Civil War scratched the surface, Black Panther smashed a giant hole through it. Africa was portrayed as a technologically advanced society of peace and innovation, women were given a strong presence in power roles and action sequences, and its deep story layers of a power struggle for Wakanda’s throne between T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger were rooted in the family conflicts depicted in The Godfather and Disney’s The Lion King. There were some critics at the time who thought Jordan stood out more than Boseman and felt the roles should have been reversed. I disagree with that assessment. Jordan needed to prove he was capable of playing unsympathetic characters. This was Boseman’s time to come into his own. He gave us a hero full of virtue, honor, and the willingness to push back against tradition for something better.
In the films and in real life, Boseman was a hero to kids around the world who needed a hero who looked like them. The Howard University student who was lifted up by icons such as Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington became that same role model who spoke publicly about following your dreams, write as much as you can, hone your craft, be engaged in your community, and get involved in activism to see the change in the world that you want to see. The choices he made as an actor at the height of his career cemented him as an actor who avoided racial stereotypes and sought for roles more grounded in the heroes we need in life. You can see that in his last performances in 21 Bridges (a decorated NYPD detective hellbent on stopping two cop killers) and Da 5 Bloods (an ill-faded squad leader in Vietnam who also shares an emotionally charged, almost Oscar-worthy scene with Delroy Lindo).
There were two occasions in my life when I almost met Boseman in person. The first was around the time of 42’s release when we had a family friend who attended the same church as Boseman in Brooklyn, NY. They were not super close, but they were very friendly with each other. Though we had discussions about having our friend try to reach out to see if I could meet him, Boseman had already signed on to Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War and he spent most of his time in Los Angeles from then on. The second time was November last year at the world premiere of 21 Bridges which a friend of mine got tickets for. I only got to glance at the man in person when I turned back on my seat to see him enter the theater like the king we all believed him to be. One thing I did notice aside from his crazy gold-orange blazer was how much weight he appeared to drop. My friend and I thought at the time that he was preparing for another film role. We hoped to hear him speak to the audience that night and potentially get a chance to get autographs. Neither happened and that’s perfectly fine. But when I saw him on TV at the NBA All-Star Game earlier this year, I noticed again he looked very skinny and still thought nothing of it. The truth was that none of us knew what he was really going through.
All throughout the day and even now as I’m near tears writing this piece, I just felt hurt by this sudden loss of a cultural icon who just seemed to be getting started. A whole future seemed to be plotted ahead in bright lights which included a Black Panther sequel. The last thing I wanted to be doing was speculating on what Marvel will plan to do going forward. Like James Dean and Bruce Lee before him, Boseman has his name etched in history as an immortal icon lost at the prime of his life. For the pain I feel for his family and his fans around the world, there was one thing that I found inspiring that perked up my sprits to a degree. There was a point in the day when someone reminded me of the fact that in the 4 years that Boseman was sick, he kept on working. I believe he struggled many times with getting in shape, rehearsing fight scenes, and doing the constant traveling to promote his work. But there’s something to be said about the strength of his spirit which allowed him to not let cancer stop his dream cold. Knowing that tomorrow was never promised, he made the moments he had on screen count until the Good Lord said it was time to come home. Whatever we are going through today, just remember that none of us cannot take this one life we have for granted. Our individual purpose matters to the community around. That is the way Chadwick Boseman lived his life to the very end.
Long live the king. Wakanda Forever.