RIP to the Ultimate Game Changer Chadwick Boseman
African-Americans, always braced for news about our own being taken from us early, the unexpected impact of Chadwick Boseman death, from colon cancer – and the shoulder-to-the-grindstone dignity of his decision to work through his illness and keep it quiet – encapsulated the grim reality of black life in America. We didn’t lose Boseman to the ongoing calamity of street violence that extinguishes over to black life – and gets so much media coverage that we have been conditioned to expect it. That’s what many of my friends said as we emailed and texted about the actor’s sudden passing.
But what made Boseman’s death hard to take was that he’d made his breakthrough as a black actor playing adults, grown men who had to wrestle with their own expectations, as well as the diminished expectations others had for them. There was something in Boseman that understood the power of pride: his performances doubled as meditations on the allure and dangers of self-regard. That is what we responded to in him, especially as African Americans – whose pride can be maligned, treated as effrontery, and turned into a felony because it reflects the ownership of self that white America still has a hard time embracing. It’s the reason that race riots have peppered America’s history from the late 1800s to the present. (Our nation likes to pretend such upheavals are a new thing, or at least, part of the modern civil rights movement, but they precede that.)
This is the journey of black culture, from the blues to hip-hop, from Lead Belly to Billie Holiday to Nipsey Hustle, the last two lost far too young. Because for so long, pride was the sole territory we could claim as African Americans. And Boseman massaged so many variations of that pride into the shoulders of the characters he acted.
In some ways, it was easy for Boseman’s quietly heroic performance as T’Challa to be over-shadowed—most especially in a film like 2018’s Black Panther which pitted him against many of the most charismatic performers of the entire MCU. But Boseman never let you forget that you weren’t just watching some random superhero, beating up Killmonger or battling it out alongside the Avengers—you were watching a king. Reserved, charming, and even occasionally, adorably, awkward, Boseman infused the character—who he played in 4 films, most recently 2019’s Avengers: Endgame—with a humanity that lived alongside the dignity, and sometimes even the arrogance, of royalty. And to know, now, that he was accomplishing this feat of mythmaking-in-the-making while also fighting stage III, and then stage IV, colon cancer, only makes his accomplishments all the more staggering.