Before he was a superhero, Chadwick Boseman was a movie star. He seemed to have that quality about him from the get-go, that ineffable something that makes you want to watch people laugh and cry and rage and love, projected 20 feet high onto a screen, something both intimate and larger than life. For a lot of us, it started with 42, the 2013 biopic on Jackie Robinson. Boseman wasn’t exactly an unknown when director Brian Helgeland cast him — he had a long list of TV credits ranging from soap operas to police procedurals, E.R. to Justified — but he wasn’t a name yet. It was a gamble, giving him the responsibility of dramatizing the trials and tribulations the Brooklyn Dodger faced as he broke the color barrier in baseball.
Yet when you saw Boseman step into the first of what would be several cultural-icon roles, it was clear that the then–35-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. He could channel No. 42’s athleticism and grace (Boseman had played basketball in high school before he turned his attention to writing and theater), and he could show the man’s watchfulness on the field, in the locker room, in public appearances. Long before he put on the Black Panther’s mask, he gave us the mask that Robinson had to wear, a stoic look that hid the turmoil going on inside him. And, when he needed to, he could allow the Hall of Famer’s façade to drop and show you just how much pain was there below the surface.
Before he was a movie star, Boseman — who died yesterday after a four-year battle with cancer, at the age of 43 — was just a young man growing up in South Carolina. He’d had his own experiences of growing up as an African-American in a country that’s never fully treated its racial wounds, much less healed them, and a loving family who encouraged his creative pursuits. After getting bit by the storytelling bug as a teenager, he applied for the directing program at Howard University and ended up spending a summer at Oxford studying theater. (Boseman later admitted that a famous friend of his professor/mentor Phylicia Rashad helped pay for his trip overseas. His benefactor: Denzel Washington.) He moved to New York after he graduated, and later to Los Angeles, living the life of a working actor and writing constantly. Even after 42 made him famous, and he managed to not just nab but nail the role of James Brown in Get on Up, Boseman was constantly working on plays and scripts in between doing films like Draft Day and Gods of Egypt. “There’s a plethora of stories in our culture that haven’t been told, because Hollywood didn’t believe they were viable,” he’d later say. “It would be cool to see slices of history that you haven’t seen with African figures.” Like layered stories of triumph and exploration, excavations of the past, and bold sci-fi visions of the future. Like studio blockbusters. Like superhero movies.
Though Boseman had already played a real-life hero before he took on King T’Challa of Wakanda, and would bring a similar upstanding figure to life when he played the part of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 2017’s Marshall, it’s the warrior in the black vibranium bodysuit that he’ll likely be remembered for the most. From the moment T’Challa appears in Captain America: Civil War, a prince who suffers a personal tragedy that turns him into a regent, there’s the sense that you’re seeing something unique happening. And when his alter ego shows up, battling villains and eventual allies, you instantly understand that this avenger is the equal to every other costumed do-gooder we’ve encountered in Marvel’s ever-growing franchise. It’s more than a glorified cameo yet not quite a full supporting part, but Boseman makes the most of his screen time. Everything he does keeps suggesting a bigger, more interesting story happening on the periphery, and you leave this movie anxious to see that one. Boseman trained in African fighting styles (he’d namecheck Dambe boxing, Zulu stick fighting, Angolan capoeira), studied various African cultures, took research trips, worked tirelessly to get the accent right. Much like Ryan Coogler, the director and cowriter of 2018’s Black Panther, he did his homework and put in the hours. He knew that, Marvel or not, a solo movie for the character was still considered by some to be a risk. It ended up becoming a global phenomenon.
It’s tough to overstate how crucial Boseman’s performance is to Black Panther‘s success, in the same way that it’s impossible to downplay just how seismic the reaction to this Oscar-nominated movie was. Coogler gives us a singular, spectacular vision of an Afro-futurist nation unto itself; Boseman gives us a human being and a royal hero worthy of leading it. The rapport with Letitia Wright’s resident genius Shiri. The stand-offs with Michael B. Jordan’s righteous Killmonger. The balance of responsibility between protecting his country and the new king’s personal feelings that he may not be worthy of the task. There is humor, pathos, doubt, and Shakespearean gravitas embedded into role. His T’Challa is both mythic and, thanks to the actor, man-sized when he needs to be. And even though it’s definitely an ensemble piece — Boseman plays beautifully off of a once-in-a-lifetime cast that also included Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira — you never doubt whose film this is. Nor do you doubt what an impact it had on audience members who saw the dignity he gave Black Panther, and the children all around the world who saw a comic-book hero that looked exactly like them. “Wakanda forever” wasn’t just a battle cry in this fictional landscape. It was a rallying cry in the world outside of the theater as well.
When the film came out, you could not go on social media without seeing viral videos featuring crowds losing their minds at screenings, and of Boseman surprising folks who’d been waiting to see this movie their entire lives. The fact that he was such an ambassador for Black Panther — that he also knew what this character represented to people, and what it meant that T’Challa’s story was actually told in the epic way it deserved — made him seem larger-than-life as well. Knowing now that he was battling cancer the entire time he was working on this groundbreaking film and those post-Panther Avengers films, walking red carpets and making these appearances in between surgeries and treatments (he was diagnosed in 2016) only makes them that much more impressive.
One of my favorite “encounter” videos is a segment that he and Jimmy Fallon did on The Tonight Show, in which fans, standing in front of Black Panther poster, are asked to say why this movie touched them so much. Boseman is standing behind a curtain with the host, listening to people gush about the film; he then comes out and says hello, and said fans lose their shit accordingly. At one point, a mother stands with her young son, saying how she’s so happy that he has Barack Obama and Black Panther to look up to. The star walks out and hugs the mother. But the boy — his mind is blown. There’s a half-smile on his face, barely able to comprehend that this hero he’s looked up to is standing in front of him. It was hard not to tear up a bit when you saw that moment in 2018. It’s impossible not to sob when you watch it now.
There was so much still to see from him, so much more left for him to show us. You wanted to see where he took T’Challa (you knew the character was not going to be gone long once he disappeared at the climax of Avengers: Infinity War, which didn’t stop crowds from losing their minds when Wakanda’s finest reappears before Avengers: Endgame‘s big battle). You wanted to see him do more roles like that of Stormin’ Norman, the late captain who inspired his fellow platoon members in Spike Lee’s Vietnam-vets movie Da 5 Bloods. We still have Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play, coming in a few months; Boseman plays Levee which, if you know the play, is one hell of a role. But we needed to see him play more fools, factory workers, heroes, villains, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, artists, activists, criminals, and presidents. He leaves behind a legacy that is beyond impressive, and still feels horribly interrupted and unfinished. We have the movies, and that doesn’t feel like it’s enough. But it is what he have of Boseman. The king is dead. Long live the king.