Chadwick Boseman’s death by colon cancer at the age of 43 feels unfathomable. Although he appeared in relatively few movies, he had already become one of the most important actors of his generation. It seems certain that the best was yet to come. His passing is not just an immeasurable loss to cinema but to Black culture, which he entertained and enriched immeasurably through his art and voice.
It had almost become a running joke that every time there was an important Black male figure getting the big screen treatment, Boseman was the man you called. The safe choice? Perhaps. But it was also an astute one. The dignity, grace and good-heartedness that Boseman so naturally radiated was perfect for the likes of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, music pioneer James Brown and civil rights titan Thurgood Marshall. His performances were the highlight of these films.
No role that Boseman played was more iconic than T’Challa, aka Black Panther. From the moment the camera first panned up to him in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, it was clear he was the perfect choice to portray the Warrior King of Wakanda, a fictional African nation untouched by colonialism. There’s a regal quality he exudes that is incredibly rare but crucial for such a character – and it’s evident every moment he’s on screen. Some critics saw his understated approach in 2018’s Black Panther and wrote that he was overshadowed by Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger) and Letitia Wright (Shuri). But cool, calm and composed was exactly what was needed for T’Challa, a King who always does what is right, not what is easy.
It is not an overstatement to say that Boseman’s T’Challa changed the world. The build-up to Black Panther was a cultural moment for the ages. Celebrities hired out cinemas so that the less privileged got a chance to see it. Fans spent hours watching and re-watching the trailers – and then fashioning elaborate, detailed cosplay inspired by the movie. Videos of Black kids celebrating when they found out they were going to watch Black Panther early went viral. T’Challa was not the first Black superhero to get the big screen treatment – that honour goes to Wesley Snipes’ Blade – but he was the first that had Black kids all over the globe claiming him as their own. There has never been anyone or anything which has inspired a comparative amount of Black joy in my lifetime.
I experienced this joy first-hand when I attended the Black Panther UK premiere in February 2018. For a man who’s grudgingly made peace with the fact that I’ll be one of maybe three people of colour (if I’m lucky) at every press screening, seeing Black people of every shade representing several parts of the diaspora, all proudly wearing their traditional garments was a revelation. There has never been a screening like it before or since. By the time Avengers: Endgame rolled around a year later, Marvel had gotten the message. It is of no small significance that T’Challa, Okoye, and Shuri are the first to emerge from the portals in that final battle, poised and ready to take the baton from departing MCU stalwarts Captain America and Iron Man in the franchise’s next phase. Speaking of which, the mere fact that Marvel’s upcoming slate features an all-Asian movie like Shang-Chi is just one example of the game-changing impact Black Panther will continue to have for years to come.
That Boseman was battling colon cancer for the past four years only enhances his reputation. While filming tough, draining action sequences in addition to the press junkets and red carpets, Boseman led the Black Panther cast with the same dignity and grace he put into all his roles, both outwardly and inwardly. The best example of this was at the 2019 SAG Awards, where he gave a passionate, memorable speech about being “young, gifted, and Black”.
Perhaps Boseman’s kingly demeanour is most evident in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, released earlier this year. He played the wonderfully named Stormin’ Norman, a fallen squad leader of four Vietnam veterans who search for his remains years later. As Lee told The Atlantic, “The character is a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, T’Challa… Chad is a superhero!” Slowly but surely, by portraying so many iconic Black figures, Boseman became iconic in his own right. In doing so, he’s left a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten. Rest in power, my King.