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We lost one of our brightest lights on Friday (Aug. 28). Chadwick Boseman succumbed to colon cancer in Los Angeles and the shock is still in the air. The news generated a collective gasp around the world and folks are in disbelief. The acclaimed actor’s brave choice to keep such dramatic news a secret speaks to both his character and his abilities as a thespian.
The past year has taken so much from us already. We’ve lost Juice WRLD and Kobe Bryant in equally sudden ways. 2020 is proving to be an ongoing traumatic experience for everyone, but like the rest of society, Black folks have it the worst yet again. As protests continue to disrupt cities across America, Black Lives Matter has shifted from a radical ideology to common sense. A large part of that culture shift can be traced back to Boseman’s acting career.
For generations to come, little Black boys, girls, and children of all races will know who Jackie Robinson was because of his role in 42. They will know what James Brown’s funk was all about because of his role in Get On Up. They will know what Thurgood Marshall stood for as a young lawyer because of his role in Marshall. They will know what an imagined African superhero, one free from slavery and colonialism, looks like because of his role in Black Panther. These contributions to the art of cinema and the larger culture have become immortal as our beloved brother shed his mortal coil. All the stars are closer and heaven has gained a new sun. A Black son, a king on and off screen.
My first internship when I moved to L.A. was at Legendary Entertainment, the production company behind 2013’s 42. Knowing that role helped launch the career of Chadwick Boseman, I can feel the coolness of his long shadow. In seven years, he was able to tell some of the most treasured stories in Black history. His work stand’s up against Denzel Washington’s Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Rueben “Hurricane” Carter, and Frank Lucas; Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali; and David Oywolo’s Martin Luther King Jr.
He was always outspoken. An alumnus of Howard University, he gave the commencement speech at his alma mater in 2018. Part of his message highlighted the continued struggle for representation in film for Black actors.
“When I dared to challenge the systems 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 — a path to my destiny. When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it.”
His first role was as Reggie Porter on ABC’s “All My Children” and it lasted one week. He had issues with the way the character portrayed racial stereotypes and he was fired, but apparently execs took enough of his advice to adjust Reggie’s role for his replacement. “It’s one of those things where you get a role, and you don’t really know… When I got it, I was like, ‘This is not part of my manifesto. This is not part of what I want to do,” he admitted.
Years later, this story emerged in an interview with Michael B. Jordan, who happened to be the actor who took over the role of Reggie. This full circle moment was but one example of his grace. A true man of character with a deep love for his craft and a greater love for his people — even if it came at his own expense.
Boseman’s career was peppered with action roles in the years before and after his Disney/ Marvel fame. Early entries include The Kill Hole and Message from the King, which cast him as Jacob King, a South African searching for his younger sister in the L.A. underworld, was a project he produced. 21 Bridges and Da 5 Bloods round out the list of his work in the action genre. His role as Stormin’ Norman in the Spike Lee joint takes on a new level of significance now.
I had the privilege of being in the room with him during the “Black Hollywood: Telling Our Stories” panel at REVOLT Summit L.A. in October of last year. He shared a lot of his experiences about growing up in South Carolina, then coming to New York in search of work as an actor.
When he took questions from the audience, a young woman shared that she was the daughter of one of Boseman’s former teachers. She asked about mentorship and he mentioned that it would behoove him to think about it. He must’ve known his time was limited, but he still had goals and aspirations for the future.
Before he died, he was working on a film called Yasuke about Japan’s only Black samurai. He continued to push boundaries and live a life of purpose knowing that he was terminally ill, and that speaks to his “never give up” attitude. He chose to portray characters who reflect our greatness in unique ways during significant points in time and he managed to do it without sacrificing commercial or critical success.
Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of Pittsburgh’s Black playwright August Wilson’s work, will be the first film to be posthumously released following his passing. It’s no surprise that he was inspired by Washington. The two men were connected by the fact that Washington’s helped fund Boseman’s acting education in England two decades ago, while the young thespian attended Howard University. He called the late actor a “gentle soul and a brilliant artist” while expressing his grief.
One of the most emotional moments that stands out is when Boseman opened up about his relationship with Ian and Taylor, two boys with terminal cancer who were fans, but didn’t live to see the release of the epic blockbuster that was Black Panther.
The clip was moving when it was first posted a couple years ago, but now, it holds a more profound sentiment. Boseman’s tears were for those children, but were they also for his impending fate, hidden from the outside world. The show had to go on. Through every table read, costume fitting, reshoot, and press junket; he held his head high and kept thriving to inspire us.
Cancer is a thief in the night. I recently lost my sister to stage IV lung cancer and the experience has forced me to realize that the hidden pain that the strongest amongst us carry is real. This loss is one that brings together millions of people in grieving the havoc it causes. The galloping pace at which it takes our beloved family and friends is breathtakingly devastating.
Thank you Chadwick for helping to tell our stories, our way. You are an ancestor now and what you left us with is the vision of a courageous, noble Black man who wanted to live, and die, on his own terms. Your life offers a wealth of lessons for Black creatives determined to live according to principles that elevate both our image and status in the world.
Silent warriors tend to be the strongest. Bad boys move in silence. Chadwick Boseman proved it. He carried the burden of countless “Wakanda forever” salutes in stride and gave us so much while dealing with unimaginable suffering. Looking back on it, enlightened by the revelation of his secret, his performance as himself over the past four years was easily the most dignified of his career. His finest role, one only he could play.