Chadwick Boseman, star of Black Panther, was so much more than just a gifted actor

The late actor was a star for the ages who helped change Hollywood's view on race

Chadwick Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown before finding fame as the regal Black Panther, has died of cancer. Photograph: Victoria Will/Invision/AP

Chadwick Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown before finding fame as the regal Black Panther, has died of cancer. Photograph: Victoria Will/Invision/AP

 

The entertainment world is reeling from the news that Chadwick Boseman, best known as Marvel’s Black Panther, has died at the age of 43. It transpired that, unknown to all but a few close associates, the actor had been diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago.

“A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much,” his family said.

Released in 2018, Black Panther was hailed as breakthrough for the black community in Hollywood. It was the first superhero film to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars. It is the highest grossing Marvel project not to carry the word “Avengers” in its title.

The news that Boseman shot and promoted the film after receiving his diagnosis adds one more sad and unexpected distinction.

“I think it’s important because we haven’t seen anything like it,” he told me shortly before the film’s release. “People are thirsty for it. It’s one thing to tell a story about historical figures. It’s another for that story to be aspirational – to not be defined by slavery, to not be defined by colonialism. It’s important to get away from those boundaries. People are excited about the promise of what it could be and what it should be.”

Even before he was cast as the African superhero, Boseman had staked his claim as one his generation’s most exciting actors.

He was electric as James Brown in Get on Up from 2014. He shone as the inspirational baseball player Jackie Robinson in 42. This year, he appeared in Spike Lee’s acclaimed war drama Da 5 Bloods. Balancing dynamic physicality with a gift for sly comedy, Boseman looked to be a star for the ages. He will remain an inspiration.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther. Photograph: Matt Kennedy, Marvel Studios
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther. Photograph: Matt Kennedy, Marvel Studios
Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Angela Bassett at the 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2019. Photograph: John Sciulli/Getty Images for Turner
Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Angela Bassett at the 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2019. Photograph: John Sciulli/Getty Images for Turner

Boseman was born into a working class family from South Carolina. He wrote plays in school before going on to study directing at Howard University in Washington DC. His initial impulse was to remain behind the camera, but, in 2008, he moved to LA to pursue a career as an actor. His first starring role came in 2013 with 42. A year later Boseman accepted the daunting task of playing James Brown. One can hardly imagine a more spectacular entry into the big leagues. Get on Up tested every weapon in the actor’s arsenal. He had to dance. He had to sing. He had to capture some of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business’s legendary charisma.

“I was eventually confident I could pull it off,” he told me. “But I wasn’t confident at first. I think everybody had a question whether it was possible to replicate James Brown on stage. I watched him for a couple of weeks when I was making the decision. Then I had a conversation with Mick Jagger and I talked myself into it. I felt I was right. But you can’t be 100 per cent sure.”

The performance confirmed that, like a star from Hollywood’s golden age, Chadwick Boseman could do it all and do it all with style. In person, he came across as a studied, introspective individual, but there were no limits to his capacity for the creative explosion.

He was also admirably committed in his early years. More than a few talented actors have given up before the world recognised their gifts. His youthful, energetic demeanour in Black Panther distracts from the awareness that he was closing in on 40 before he became a star.

“I had made a vow to put bread on the table doing this alone,” he said to me in 2014. “That was a huge leap of faith on my part. How else are you going to get experience? I would have to do two or three jobs: I’d ghostwrite something while doing another job. But I never thought about it as hard. This is what I wanted.”

Marvel is now the biggest show in Hollywood and his casting as T’Challa, the Wakandan potentate who fights with the Avengers as Black Panther, offered final confirmation that his confidence had not been misplaced.

Draped in extravagant Afro-futurism, the film gave Boseman the opportunity to be crime fighter, secret agent, national icon, social crusader and elegant clotheshorse.

Hollywood has had an indifferent history when it comes to race, but Boseman helped to change the conversation within the industry. Many more exciting and challenging roles would have come his way. He will star opposite Viola Davis in Netflix’s imminent adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. That posthumous release, relating an incident from the life of The Mother of the Blues, now takes on an unbearable poignancy.

Tributes came in from politicians, musicians and fellow actors. Kamala Harris, the subject of Boseman’s final tweet, was moving in her celebration of short, but significant, life. “Heartbroken. My friend and fellow Bison Chadwick Boseman was brilliant, kind, learned, and humble,” the vice presidential candidate wrote. “He left too early but his life made a difference.”

It has been reported that he married the singer Taylor Simone Ledward, his long-term partner, earlier this year. The shockwaves still reverberate.

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