Chadwick Boseman lived an incredible life and his legacy will continue through his work and his words. Boseman grew up in Anderson, South Carolina and his journey into acting was unique. In high school he participated in debate, speech, drama, and excelled at basketball. After the tragic loss of a classmate in high school to gun violence he turned more towards the dramatic arts as he processed the loss. It wasn’t something he liked to talk about, but he clarified in a 2018 interview that, “Basically I wrote a play in response to it. It wasn’t about his death, but it was more-so me just trying to deal with the fact that it had happened. And so, I guess it was a healing process. That was really the first time that I knew what it was like to create a story, be on stage, and deliver something and have an audience respond to it in a way that was meaningful.”
He later attended the HBCU (Historically Black College & University) Howard University and majored in directing. After getting accepted into a prestigious acting program at the British Academy of Dramatic Acting in Oxford, his Howard University mentor and professor Phylicia Rashad (a native of Houston, TX), reached out to a friend of hers to help fund Boseman’s educational experience. That friend was none other than legendary actor Denzel Washington.
Boseman had the unique privilege to honor the veteran actor just one year ago in 2019 during the 47th American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards. During his tribute to Washington, Boseman said, “I know personally that your generosity has extended past what you have given on the stage and on screen. Imagine receiving a letter that your tuition for that summer was paid for and that your benefactor was none other than one of the dopest actors on the planet.”
Boseman continued and brought Washington to tears near the end of his speech saying, “An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold, it is a seed of hope, a bud of faith. There is no ‘Black Panther’ without Denzel Washington. And not just because of me. My whole cast, that generation, stands on your shoulders.”
Boseman’s acting background included a lot of theater and television show appearances. It was by no means an easy road for him. In the commencement speech he gave at Howard University’s 150th convocation in 2018 he talked about losing work early in his career due to a stigma of him being “difficult” to work with when he raised concerns over the stereotypical roles that he was cast for.
“Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it,” Boseman explained to the crowd. “Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you.”Chadwick Boseman, Howard University’s 150th Convocation Commencement Address
His big break came in 2013 when he starred in the biopic ‘42,’ the story of Jackie Robinson. You could see it even then, the sparkle in his eye, the warmth from his smile, his contagious laugh. He had that magic that very few possess. Quickly he became the first choice for biopics of legendary black figures in history. He later portrayed James Brown in ‘Get on Up’ and Thurgood Marshall in ‘Marshall.’ “Purpose crosses disciplines,” Boseman continued in his commencement address. “Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the systems that would relegate us to victims with no clear background, no hopes or talents. When I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me. The path to my destiny.”
Boseman brought to life the stories of our ancestors in a way that left people wanting more. The biopics kept rolling in. In an interview with Larry King, Boseman shared that the best piece of advice he’d received was to, “learn when to say no.” To his credit, he remained aligned with his purpose and implemented that sage advice of knowing when to say no.
Following his string of biopic films in which he played a sports, an entertainment, and a civil rights icon, he was cast as Marvel Universe’s first black lead actor in the film ‘Black Panther.’ Dedicated to his craft, Boseman trained intensely in Zulu stick fighting, karate, Angolan capoeira, jiu-jitsu, Dambe boxing and kung-fu for this groundbreaking role. This role catapulted him into international stardom. Deservedly so, as there were undeniable elements of grace and magic that he brought to this character. The black superhero we longed to see.
“Anytime people would say to me, a movie with a black lead won’t work internationally, I always said that makes no sense whatsoever.” Boseman explained. “There’s a thirst for these images, there’s a thirst for a black superhero. As far as my character goes, there is a real search for how do I lead and I think people are searching for leaders that care about the people.”
He was right. The obstacle black actors often face is the lack of opportunities in Hollywood based on its history of exclusionary practices. Marvel got this one right. Director Ryan Coogler, in collaboration with a talented cast and crew, created a transformative experience for movie goers. When talking about the message behind the film Boseman said, “The message is that it works to have a black cast. It works that our stories can resonate not just in this country but throughout the world.” The impact of ‘Black Panther’ reached beyond record-breaking box-office numbers. There was a cultural impact of representation that reverberates to this day.
When asked whether he viewed the film as revolutionary he said, “Wakanda is advanced. They’re not just the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, they’re the most spiritually advanced in some ways. They’re ahead of the rest of the world. Colonization and slavery enslaves everybody. It doesn’t just enslave the African. Everybody is bound by the limitations of those systems. Because they’re not up under that, they are okay with the idea [of] seeing male and female on the same level. Like my sister can challenge for the throne. That concept is what you see in the movie. Danai, Lupita, Angela, Letitia all are different types of women. Wonder Woman…that was a great conversation that was started, but this advances that because you don’t have just one image of what beauty and strength is in this movie.”
The impact that this movie had on children is a conversation to itself. “It’s one of the reasons I get up in the morning and do what I do,” Boseman said. “There’s actually a couple of kids that I’ve connected with while I was shooting ‘Black Panther’ and literally when I was tired, I would just think of them. Thinking about them seeing the movie. To see that it means that much…”
When asked by a young black girl, why it was important to him that there’s a movie that represents black heroes, Boseman responded, “It’s important because I didn’t have this growing up. I’m still a kid. There’s a kid in each one of us. I just know what it’s going to mean to you when you see it. It can give you a certain type of confidence when you walk through the world and also make people that [don’t] look like you see you in a different light [and] not judge you in a particular way.”
When asked during the ‘Black Panther’ press run how he reflects on his early days in Anderson, S.C. compared to where he was now, Boseman expressed, “There is [nothing that] can be [more] humbling than that, mainly because it’s not something that as a kid there I would have thought would be possible. What I love now is that there are little kids now, who live there, who are like, ‘yeah I could go to Hollywood and become a movie star.’ And that’s a very emotional thing to even consider that you have a part in that.”
Boseman used his awe-inspiring acting gift to take on the role of King T’Challa, The ‘Black Panther,’ that marked a turning point in cinema. He went on to make 5 additional films. In a monumentally full-circle experience, one of his final films, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ was produced by Denzel Washington. His next project ‘Yasuke,’ the tale of the 16th century African Samurai, was still in pre-production.
Every year on April 15th Jackie Robinson is honored by the MLB (Major League Baseball). This year the COVID-19 pandemic prevented that tradition from taking place, so the celebration was postponed to August 28th. Boseman, who played the iconic role of Robinson, took a moment to celebrate Jackie Robinson day and share a video on social media where he revealed Thomas Tull’s “Operation 42.” “Operation 42” is an initiative to donate 4.2 million dollars of personal protective equipment to black communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. He talked about his appreciation of Tull who “filled in the gap” while they filmed ‘42’ when doubts set in about the film and applauded him for doing the same now when the community is in crisis. He acknowledged the stats that show black and brown communities were being hit harder in part because they comprise many of the front-line workers. Boseman expressed, “We’re the front-line workers. We’re the ones still going to work. We’re the ones still driving the buses…we’re the EMTs. We are the ones who are going to battle every day.” His post was met with enough speculation and noise over his slimmer appearance that he decided to remove it from his main page. Little did everyone know that for the past four years, Boseman had also been going to battle every day. He went to battle for some of the same people who found it amusing to make light of his appearance.
Four short months later, on the evening of August 28, 2020, Boseman passed away in his Los Angeles home surrounded by his loved ones including his wife and family at the age of 43. “It is with immeasurable grief that we confirm the passing of Chadwick Boseman.” A statement released on social media read, “Chadwick was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016 and battled with it these last 4 years as it progressed to stage IV. A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you’ve come to love so much.” Boseman passed away on Jackie Robinson Day, seven years after portraying him on screen. The death of Chadwick Boseman sent shockwaves of grief across the African diaspora and the world.
And with that comes the awe-inspiring and heartbreaking realization that he was a superhero both on and off the screen. While suffering through “countless surgeries and chemotherapy” Boseman gave incredible performances, visited child cancer patients, and used his platform to uplift others and continue his humanitarian work. Living with a chronic illness is difficult. Boseman found the strength to walk in his purpose with a passion and fervor that perhaps came from his deeper understanding of the value of time. Though he chose to keep his cancer battle private, it makes his story that much more incredible. Perhaps in a final act of leadership, the way in which he lived his life will remind people to pause and consider kindness and empathy towards one another as we journey through life. For we truly do not know the quiet battles people are facing.
In a 2018 interview during a segment called “If You Only Knew,” Larry King asked Boseman what superpower he wished he had in real life. Boseman leaned back in his chair, eyes glistening, and he said without hesitation, “I wish I could freeze time.” Prompted by King’s surprised reaction, Boseman offered a mild elaboration saying, “Stop time and move around and do stuff and then come back and…*sigh*…yeah.”
Boseman concluded his commencement speech saying, “I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way. The more complicated one. The one with more failures at first than successes. The one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, [and] more glory, then you will not regret it.”Chadwick Boseman, Howard University’s 150th Convocation Commencement Address
In a 2017 interview Matthew Jacobs suggested to Boseman that the grueling nature of his filming schedule from multiple simultaneous projects must have left him feeling “put through the ringer.” Boseman’s response was,“Oh, you don’t even know. [laughs] You have no idea. One day I’ll live to tell the story.”
Chadwick, now that you have joined the ancestors and are at rest, it is our honored duty to tell your story. Thank you for being a beacon of light. Thank you for lifting us up, inspiring us, and giving us hope. Thank you for showing the world our humanity in how you advocated for us to be seen in the fullness of who we are. Thank you for leading with kindness and humility. May you rest in peace.