Less than ten minutes after Chadwick Boseman’s family announced on Friday night that he had passed away, Sam Adams, a senior editor at Slate, couldn’t help but notice that “you can practically see the shockwaves going through Twitter right now.” Almost no one outside Boseman’s immediate family was aware that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. In what has become the most liked tweet in Twitter’s history, the family noted that Boseman had portrayed Thurgood Marshall in Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall (2017), “Stormin’ Norman” in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020), and of course T’Challa, King of Wakanda, in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) “during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy.” Though he had maintained the arresting looks and physical prowess of a man ten years younger, Boseman was forty-three.
During his high school years in South Carolina, it looked as if Boseman might well have a future in basketball, but watching his older brother Kevin rehearse—he was a dancer who would go on to perform with the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey troupes—Chadwick was drawn to the performing arts. At Howard University, where he eventually graduated with a degree in directing, Boseman took an acting class taught by the renowned actor and director Phylicia Rashad. She saw to it that he and several classmates were accepted to the British American Drama Academy in Oxford and turned to some friends, including Denzel Washington, to help pay for the trip.
When he returned to the States, Boseman first set down in New York, where he wrote and directed plays such as Deep Azure and Hieroglyphic Graffiti and taught acting at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. In the early 2000s, he began landing small roles in television and eventually moved out to Los Angeles. In 2013, he scored his first leading role in Brian Helgeland’s 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color line when he started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Rolling Stone’s David Fear writes that “it was clear that the then-thirty-five-year-old actor had charisma, chops, and a certain type of confidence. He could play the conflict going on behind Robinson’s eyes as the baseball great faced down racist taunts and struggled to reconcile his love of the game with the hatred being directed at him.”
The following year, Boseman took on another Black icon, James Brown, in Tate Taylor’s Get on Up. “Boseman gave one of the finest performances of the decade, period, and possibly the finest in terms of pure physicality,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “Brown’s body moved in ways that must have surprised even the good Lord himself, and Boseman conjured every signature move, not as mimicry but as a form of spiritual connection.” For the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang, there is “nothing else quite like Get on Up in Boseman’s pantheon of great performances. It was the star turn as revelatory act of possession, in which an actor of impeccable control gave himself over to reckless, untamed emotion, throwing caution but not technique to the wind.”
Boseman was already at work on a South African accent in preparation for his role as Jacob King, a man from Cape Town to travels to Los Angeles to rescue his sister in Fabrice Du Welz’s Message from the King (2016), when he was tapped to introduce Black Panther to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: Civil War (2016). The Atlantic’s David Sims notes that Marvel producer Kevin Feige once remarked: “You hear people say this all the time . . . but he was the only choice.” Talking to Vulture, casting director Sarah Halley Finn confirms that “it was unanimous. We all were in absolute agreement immediately that he was the person to play this part. My team at Marvel had seen his body of work and knew his ability to channel this kind of dignity, this grace, this elegance, this regalness with humility and humor and intelligence.”
Talking with Boseman for the New York Times last year, Reggie Ugwu noted that the actor told him that “his method of humanizing superhumans begins with searching their pasts. He’s looking for gestational wounds, personal failures, private fears—fissures where the molten ore of experience might harden into steel . . . ‘You’re a strong black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great,’ he continued. ‘So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?’”
For Boseman, T’Challa’s accent, recognizably African but difficult to pinpoint on a map, was crucial. “If Wakanda is supposedly the most technologically advanced nation on the planet,” he told CNET in 2017, “if it’s supposed to have never been conquered, which means that that advancement has happened without colonialism tainting it, then that would mean that there’s no way in the world that he would speak with a European accent. If I did that, then I would be conveying a white supremacist idea of what being educated is.”
It’s next to impossible to overstate the cultural impact and significance of Black Panther. A global event, it became the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time, the fourth highest in North America, and the first superhero movie to be nominated for best picture—just one of its seven Oscar nominations. But as Clint Smith puts it with aching simplicity in the Atlantic, “the film, and the characters within it, did feel uniquely ours. As such, Boseman’s death hits me hard . . . Amid a moment in which Black life feels particularly fragile, losing a Black superhero, even a fictional one, is especially destabilizing.”
Ryan Gilbey spoke with Boseman for the Guardian two years ago, and recalls the actor “batting away the idea that he might have felt any pressure about playing so beloved a character. ‘You’re not thinking: “Don’t screw up,” exactly,’ he said. ‘It’s more positive than that. It’s more like: “Seize it. Enjoy it.”’ And he did.” The Guardian’s Steve Rose talks with Brian Kirk, who directed Boseman in last year’s action thriller 21 Bridges and remembers the magnetic star being swarmed by admiring kids. “He had endless amounts of generosity for them,” Kirk tells Rose. “He understood the importance of being a positive and available role model. He was an amazing actor and he was a genuine movie star. To be one of those things is rare, to be both is pretty incredible.”
After 21 Bridges, Boseman played the leader—by rank and by moral rectitude—of an all-Black squad of soldiers in Vietnam in Da 5 Bloods. “Stormin’ Norman” is “an idolized figure, a teacher of Black history,” writes Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com. “He is also a specter of guilt, an unflinching carrier of Black pride, a bearer of racial reparations, and ultimately, a beacon of forgiveness. This is a lot for one actor to play in a short period of time onscreen, but myth packs light and travels fast.” In his review of Da 5 Bloods earlier this year, Henderson wrote: “A shot of him just shooting the shit with an Afro pick rising up from the back of his head carries enough unapologetic Blackness to power a nuclear reactor of revolution.”
Throughout the weekend, countless tributes to Boseman came from fans, colleagues, and world leaders, and two in particular call for singling out. On Twitter, the writer Derecka Purnell asked for “a thread of Black kids in Black Panther costumes, as a way to remember and celebrate Chadwick Boseman,” and she got one. It’s an indescribably touching scroll. Then yesterday, Ryan Coogler released a statement in which he recalls how Boseman ended up designating Xhosa, the native language of “South African cinema titan” John Kani, who played T’Challa’s father, as the official language of Wakanda—and how during the making of Black Panther, Boseman would exclaim, “This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us . . . and bigger!”
Following a string of other memories, all of them related to the many ways Boseman helped define the world of Black Panther, Coogler writes: “Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity, and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.