The late Chadwick Boseman, who died in August aged just 43, makes his final on-screen appearance this week (December 18) in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, playing ambitious but scheming and tortured trumpet player Levee.
Fans will no doubt look for meaning in Boseman’s delivery of Levee’s speech about the “will of god” when describing his troubled life and ongoing struggle, but Boseman’s career is littered with equally powerful depictions of important Black characters. Here, we remember his most iconic roles.
In: Get On Up (2014)
Who: Ladies and gentlemen, the godfather of soul! James Brown was one of the biggest personalities we’ll likely ever see in the music world, a man whose patter – typical example: ”I’m so pretty, I kiss myself!” – could have been scripted by Muhammad Ali himself. But like the latter in boxing, Brown could get away with it – because he was the GOAT funk artist.
A controversial character with a colourful life, Brown was born into abject poverty. First arrested and imprisoned at age 17, he was never far from trouble throughout the years that followed. Even his 2010 death was complicated: it was reported – and disputed – that his corpse was stolen as his family squabbled over his estate.
What Chadwick said: Boseman’s performance was widely praised, but the actor hadn’t felt it a natural fit, even having to retrain his vocals to replicate Brown’s gravelly drawl and maintain that voice in-between takes. No wonder Boseman thought twice on first being invited to audition. He told The Guardian: “I was like, ‘What’s next? Gimme something else.’ He’s too big an icon, and I’d just played one [Jackie Robinson in 42]. And in my mind, I didn’t know how you would even approach those dance moves.”
In: 42 (2013)
Who: American baseball icon who, in 1947, became the first African American player in Major League Baseball following the long-overdue abolition of baseball’s so-called ‘color line’ excluding Black people from the major and minor leagues. 42 was Robinson’s jersey for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
What Chadwick said: “In a movie like this you have to go to history and understand where [Robinson] was in his life at this point in time. It seemed to be he didn’t want to play baseball anymore. He also had in his psyche and in his vision certain things that he wanted to be able to do as a man. He understood that to do those things, life for Black people had to change.”
In: Captain America: Civil War (2016), Black Panther (2018), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Who: Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, some 28 years after the first appearance of the archetypal superhero Superman in 1938, Marvel comics’ Black Panther was the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, his powers derived from his native Wakanda, a fantastical African nation where tribal living combines with future technology. Occasionally unloved and sidelined by publisher Marvel in the decades in between, the character’s 2018 movie was a watershed moment for cinema, proving that a nearly all-Black cast and crew could not not just yield a mainstream success but probably the most celebrated and well-loved superhero movie of all time.
What Chadwick said: “Other things will undoubtedly happen because of what we’ve done. This is just another doorway into something else, just as there are so many things that have gotten us to this point.”
In: Marshall (2017)
Who: Marshall was a principal legal strategist of the Civil Rights Movement and the first African American Supreme Court Justice, a position he was nominated for by John F Kennedy in 1967 and which he held until 1991. The movie winds back to one of Marshall’s first cases, State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, in which an African-American chauffeur was wrongly accused of raping his rich, white employer.
What Chadwick said: “I grew up in the South, so I know what it is to ride to school and have Confederate flags flying from trucks in front of me and behind me, to see a parking lot full of people with Confederate flags and know what that means. I’ve been stopped by police for no reason. I’ve been called boy and n****r and everything else that you could imagine. Along with the great hospitality that is in the South, that is part of it. And so I understand when it is to exist in that space and find your manhood… I get the opportunity in playing the character to relive those things and do things a different way.”
In: All My Children (2003)
Who: We all have to start somewhere, and here’s a young Chadwick in his first TV role as gang member Reggie Porter in the long-running US daytime soap All My Children. Chadwick quit the role after just a month due to a disagreement over the racial stereotyping of his character. He was replaced on the show – amicably – by his friend Michael B. Jordan, who has himself gone on to great success starring as Adonis “Donnie” Creed in the Rocky spin-off Creed and as Black Panther’s villain N’Jadaka, aka Killmonger.
What Chadwick said: “I had to voice my opinions and put my stamp on it. And the good thing about it was, it changed it a little bit for [Jordan]. They said, ‘You are too much trouble,’ but they took my suggestions, or some of them. And for me, honestly, that’s what this is about.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hits on Netflix on December 18