Wednesday, September 2, 2020
He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us.—Ryan Coogler
When he directed Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler had no idea the actor was ill.
“Chad deeply valued his privacy, and I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness,” Coogler said in a statement released after Boseman’s Aug. 28 death after a four-year battle with colon cancer. “After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering.”
In truth, by the time filming began on the groundbreaking Marvel epic in 2017, Boseman was already being treated for late-stage colon cancer.
To put a finer point on it, being an actor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is unlike any other job in Hollywood. The commitment is huge, the physical demands intense. To embody a superhero—an Avenger, no less—means signing on for a training regimen that often begins up to a year before cameras roll. Filming is prolonged, dangerous and physically exhausting. Playing an Avenger is incredibly strenuous for a person in perfect health and tip-top physical condition.
Boseman was neither of those things. He took on the role of T’Challa/Black Panther, and the many duties that come with being part of the most successful film franchise in history, while also undergoing cancer treatment.
He told almost no one. His death, when it came, shocked the world.
Before he became the Black Panther, Boseman was drawn to those roles that brought with them deeper meaning than just a couple of hours of entertainment on the big screen. He had that rare combination of leading-man charisma and dignified gravity that gave his presence real weight and depth whenever he stepped into a scene—and he knew how to use it.
His breakout role was a big gamble for the little-known actor: Jackie Robinson in the 2013 movie 42. Like the baseball player who famously broke the color line, Boseman had to tread carefully, balancing Robinson’s trademark outward stoicism with the athlete’s internal struggle, grounding someone who has become somewhat mythical in humanity while still preserving the magnitude of his achievements. That Boseman died on the day Major League Baseball designated to honor Robinson served as a tribute to both extraordinary men.
Where Boseman had to exercise restraint in his portrayal of Robinson, his next role gave him the chance to put his god-given charisma—not to mention some of his sweet dance moves—on full display. In Get On Up the James Brown biopic that was director Tate Taylor’s follow up to The Help, Boseman proved electrifying, perfectly capturing both the energy and absurdity of the Godfather of Soul. Taylor’s direction earned accolades as did the supporting cast (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer among them), but critics saved the lion’s share of their praise for Boseman, calling him everything from “startling” to “dynamite” to “magnetic” and “utterly watchable.” If 42 hadn’t already announced Boseman as a major talent, Get On Up certainly would’ve done the trick.
After his introduction to the MCU in Captain America: Civil War but before the release of his own standalone superhero movie, Boseman played another mighty hero, one that isn’t as much a household name in Black history as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, but who is no less important: Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice. Marshall details a period in the lawyer-turned-justice’s early life when he defended a Black chauffer accused of raping a white woman. It was an old-school court drama as removed from the MCU and Wakanda as a movie could be and, once again, Boseman charmed critics with a performance that showed Marshal as both larger-than-life civil rights icon and a human with flaws and depth.
But there’s no remembering Boseman without Wakanda and the groundbreaking role that meant so much to so many. In this country, we like our superheroes to be two things: white and male. Black Panther, which was years in development, would challenge our accepted ideas about not only what a superhero could be, but also what a superhero movie was supposed to look like. Long before its release, it was steeped in controversy. Could a little-known star carry such an important film and character? Would comic-book nerds turn out in droves for this movie as they had for the other Avengers? How would such a film fit into the canon? All of the questions boiled down to one essential inquiry that people seemed almost afraid to voice out loud: Would Black Panther, with its nearly all-Black cast, Black director and Black crew, be too Black?
When it was released, the movie was unabashedly, unapologetically steeped in Black history and centered in Black culture. This was purposeful and both Coogler and Boseman had no small hand in making sure that when the world was introduced to Wakanda in its fully formed glory, it would be a world in which Blackness was celebrated and honored in all its power and promise. Anchoring that power and promise was Boseman’s performance. In the greater realm of the MCU, Black Panther was a superhero, but in Wakanda, T’Challa was a king—and that distinction was important to making Wakanda proudly self-determined in a way that was new to the MCU yet still served the characters and story. As to whether such a daring experiment in a fairly rigid genre would be embraced, well, a billion dollars in box office and seven Oscar nominations (with three wins), including a widely held belief that Black Panther was worthy of a Best Picture nod, put those questions to rest.
After his death, no one knows what will become of Black Panther, either the character or the franchise itself. But because of Boseman and his remarkable work, Wakanda truly is forever.
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