The passing of Chadwick Boseman, from a four year battle with colon cancer, was yet another example of the world losing its greatest artists too soon. While his loss resonates much deeper for some, his brilliant talent illuminated the lives of the entire world.
In 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther finally gave black people a dynamic superhero that looked more like them.
At the time the film was released only 2 in 10 movies featured a black actor in a leading role.
And while he wasn’t the first actor to play a black superhero role on screen, (that goes to Michael Jai White as Spawn) the role of T’Challa was rare due to the depth of the character.
Not only was Black Panther an international sensation and critically acclaimed film, but it was also a story that portrayed African culture as empowered rather than beholden to the international order.
The narrative arc of Wakanda and its kings flipped the script on the westernized portrayal of the continent. Far from the barbarized setting viewers grew accustomed to, Wakanda was a true kingdom, being served by a benevolent leader.
His portrayal of the king of Wakanda showed a man rich in ancestry and fierce in battle. But, who was also the perfect foil to his little sister Shuri, the piercing intellectual leading the country’s cutting edge research.
Boseman’s character didn’t just lead, he brought his people together.
But, before he was T’Challa he was baseball’s greatest superhero Jackie Robinson.
In his first feature role, the unknown actor brought the story of the bravest man in baseball to its first High Definition audience. His performance was so true to life, Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s real-life widow, said it was like seeing the ballplayer alive again.
Chadwick would go on to establish himself as an iconic talent fit for the roles of the godfather of soul, James Brown, and the first African American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.
In each role, he helped to remind our nation what it meant to be extraordinary during tumultuous times. He represented the best our country had to offer in the throes of its ugliest forces.
And when the world learned of his passing, they made, his last social media post-Twitter’s most liked of all time. Thousands of beautiful tributes came pouring in from all over the world. His death grieved heavily in the homes of children who saw themselves in the hero.
His talent brought race and identity to the white family dinner table.
When my son was five he wanted to be Black Panther for Halloween. At first, my wife and I were resistant. He already had plenty of miscellaneous toys and gear, but donning the costume in a public setting made us worry about appropriating a culture that was not our own.
He loved Black Panther, but we just weren’t sure.
But for our son to wear that costume meant something different. It wasn’t just that Black Panther was cool. He was a symbol of power and agency. A hero, who was both sage, strong, and funny.
And while I wrestled with the appropriateness of him being white and donning the Vibranium suit, I was assured knowing that my son looked up to a black superhero. Something my generation of white kids have never done.
Boseman presented white families like my own with an opportunity to better understand the lived experiences of being black in America.
His veracious portrayal of Jackie Robinson allowed dads like me to break the silence on race with ease.
‘Hey you know the guy who plays Black Panther, also played a baseball player named Jackie Robinson’?
Conversations like that are the kind white families need to have. Direct, open conversations about the racial discrimination that occurs in our country.
Tough conversations need to replace empty phrases like, ‘We don’t see color’ and ‘We’re all equal here.’
Chadwick Boseman helped bring the right conversations to my dinner table. And when my kids are old enough to understand the US judicial system, his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall will be on hand for that occasion as well.
Great artists transcend time.
In much the same way as the characters he became, Chadwick Boseman will always be celebrated as a torchbearer for racial equality.
But, he was not without battles of his own. For the last four years, we learned he was fighting late-stage colon cancer. And he barely told a soul.
Director and friend, Ryan Coogler described him during that time as “a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity, and pride.”
And despite the height of his stardom, we learned that Boseman was hiding his own pain for the good of his people, much like the heroes he portrayed.
And perhaps his even greatest feat was taking the singular experience of black prejudice in America, and universalizing the pain in a way that allowed white families to reckon with the reality of race relations.
And that makes his loss only more tragic. As much as Chad’s roles meant for black families who were long overdue a superhero of their own, the world needed his artistic presence to help alleviate the pain of racial upheaval.
Without him, who will we look to? Who will share in his uniting force?
I only hope that his passing will inspire new torch-bearers, new crown wearers, and new captivating artists willing to challenge today’s injustices. I hope that his films will continue to inspire, unite, and teach us all about what a true king really looks like.