In Memory of Chadwick Boseman 1976-2020
Image: Marvel Studios
I was standing in line at Ono Hawaiian Barbeque. The evening air was cool for the first time in weeks and I needed a break. That day had been hard. Honestly, that month had been hard. Sadness marred even the sweetest memories. So, I was at Ono ordering my favorite dish, # 4: Hawaiian barbecue mix with two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. The macaroni salad was key.
As I stood in line waiting for my order to be called, I looked down at my phone. I scrolled through twitter and then I saw it—
Colon Cancer. 43-years-old.
At some point, they called my number. I walked to the counter and picked up my order. I walked outside and stood for I don’t know how long as I scanned the internet for confirmation that he was really gone.
Then I sat in my car, scrolling again. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes, my breathing became labored. Looking out my windshield the world continued to move. People ordered food, some drove off, some talked, some laughed, others stood silent. Everyone moved on as they had before like nothing had changed, nothing had happened.
In my head all I could think was, did they know? Did they know that our King had died?
A Character is Born
In 2016, a young actor by the name of Chadwick Boseman would play the role of T’Challa and change the trajectory of my life. He would represent a hero whose subtle humor, steady elegance, and regal power would touch children and adults around the world.
I would applaud, with fellow theatergoers, on opening night as he burst on stage to save Nakia, then laugh as his sister clowned him for wearing old-school sandals while touring her state-of-the-art lab. Chadwick played T’Challa so that we could love him, root for him, and believe in him.
53 years earlier, in The Fantastic Four #52, the blue-suited super family took flight in a futuristic spaceship they had received as a gift. It was in that issue, that we first hear about a mysterious new hero.
Tribal leader, King, and superhuman hero, Black Panther was created in 1966 by the late, great Stan Lee and Jack “Kirby” Kurtzberg. Just 2 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed, Black Panther would make his debut. Though he wouldn’t have a stand-alone comic book until 1973, the character would be embroiled in controversial story arcs for some time to come.
The truth is, the early evolution of the great Black Panther was incredibly cringy. There was the primitive perspective the Fantastic Four had about the continent of Africa, as well as the name of the first solo series, Jungle Action. There’s no denying that much of that wouldn’t sit well with audiences in our current day and age.
Though not entirely politically correct, Black Panther’s reality was incredibly political. On one hand, he was a proud African superhero. Yes, Africa is a continent and he could only represent one nation, but still, there was something to be said of having a powerful character from The Continent who exemplified the opposite of most people’s perceptions of that time.
On the other hand, he was also a statesman who spent his time abroad fighting foreign enemies while simultaneously tending to the needs of his small, albeit technologically and culturally advanced country. From fighting the Klan, to fighting Killmonger, T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, rose to represent universal virtues.
But in retrospect, why does that matter? Who cares if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to create a Black superhero? Was the inclusion of T’Challa as performative then as the inclusion of black squares and hashtags are now? Why should we care about the history of a Black character created by two white men?
Well, just ask the adults who grew up reading about him becoming a hero. Or better yet, the millions of people who witnessed him become an icon.
What it Means to be a Hero
Tall, dark, handsome, and wearing a well-tailored suit, Chadwick Boseman took on the role of T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War. From his first moment on-screen with Black Widow discussing the necessary evil of diplomacy, we recognize the subtle power of his performance. This young man vibrates on a different level.
He goes from respectful, yet forceful with Natasha Romanov, to quietly intimate with his father T’Chaka. When his father is killed, T’Challa broods as vengeance begins to tear at his heart. Though we know instinctively that he is the heir apparent, we can also tell that power is far from his mind. His love for his kin will him down a dark path of retribution long before succession.
Yes, T’Challa has a responsibility to his nation, but first, he needs to deal with the man who killed his father. For Black communities who have suffered the separation of families for decades, we feel the impact the void has on the young Prince. Then, we watch as honor and responsibility war within the young man who must weigh his personal grief with the greater good of his nation.
Over the course of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa matures and then becomes the only person who comes to his senses unguided. As he watchesIron Man, Captain America, Bucky the Winter Soldier descend into a vengeance-driven rage, T’Challa vows to leave vengeance and focus instead on justice.
For the new King of Wakanda, his job is to do what is right despite the personal cost. From that standpoint, we begin the journey into the heart of Wakanda through the historic Black Panther film. The story picks up at his coronation, then diverts with a chase of Ulysses Klaw only to arrive at the final battle with Eric Killmonger. It is through this hero’s journey that T’Challa arises a stronger, more grounded Black Panther.
Chadwick Boseman, with every line, every smile, every laugh, every snarl, transports us into the mind of a man who goes from untried figurehead to a wise leader. In the final moments of the film when the villain has been vanquished and they sit looking out into the Wakandan sunset, we can feel through the screen the deep tension that still exists today between the ancestors of enslaved people and those left behind free. It is through Boseman’s ability that we can hear that story within the story.
In Boseman, we witnessed a commitment to craftsmanship. He became our heroes so that we could honor them again. Then he became a superhero to bring us hope. What Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began by drawing a character, writing a story, and giving him a background, Boseman polished by bringing that character to life.
An Unexpected Legacy
Chadwick Boseman did something few actors have the opportunity to do. He took a character with humble beginnings in a 1966 comic book and created an icon. In his portrayal of T’Challa, Boseman was able to imbue a tenderness, intellect, stateliness, and power that held audiences in rapture. He created a global superhero that people of all backgrounds, all religions, all cultures were able to relate to, celebrate, and aspire to.
Few people will have the opportunity to transcend their local communities. Few will be given the opportunity to touch lives all over the world. Few will be given words that resonate with people long after they have passed. Fewer still, even when given the chance, will rise to the occasion.
Boseman was a man with a mission- to leave this world empty of talents. To him, it was his sacred duty to present to us some of the most pivotal Black leaders of modern times. Then, to take it one step further, he lived off-screen a life so dignified and upright that he shone a light on the virtues and values some feel has been lost in the noise.
To be sincere, to live with integrity, to be resilient, to be hopeful, to be humble, to be strong, to be considerate, to be loving. In 43 years on this earth, Boseman left a legacy so undeniable that his loss is a painful reminder that no one’s time is guaranteed, but more importantly, the decisions we make every day have an impact.
In our local communities, with our loved ones and our friends- when we’re gone we leave a crater behind us, and what grows in our stead can either blossom into great inspiration, or stand as a cautionary tale. In a world where our real-life heroes are too often proved to be human through their own faults, Chadwick Boseman shines bright.
Rest in Power, Mr. Boseman. Death is not the end, it is more of a stepping off point. We will see you on the other side.
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