On August 28, actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at the age of 43. For some, this name might not mean much. But in a summer of racial unrest and the growing demand for more black roles and more black actors to play and voice them in Hollywood, Boseman was a shining example of the future of Hollywood.
Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther in 1966, as the term “Black Power” was gaining popularity in response to white suppression. Amid the battle for civil rights, this comic book storyline offered a novel concept: a black community with untold wealth, technology and military power. And yet, it still wasn’t until 2016 that the Black Panther first appeared – albeit briefly – in the growing Marvel movie series.
But the 2018 Black Panther film made cinematic history. It had a black director and a mostly black cast, with Boseman as the King of Wakanda. Strong women were everywhere, leading the king and going into battle. The clothing, language, and music were African, mixing the cultures of its many countries. It was the first of its kind in the Marvel movie universe and our own.
Sadly, it was not entirely accepted. In a move reminiscent of the 60’s white resistance, a Facebook group flooded the internet with poor ratings in the hopes of damaging the film at box office. Yet, it was still one of the most commercially successful films of the Marvel Comics Universe, inspiring young black children everywhere. And Boseman was its face.
But that was just his most recent iconic/superhero role. His break-out role was as baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson (42), followed by singer James Brown (Get on Up), and my personal favourite, lawyer (and Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall.
In fact, after watching Marshall, my mother and I spent much time comparing him to her beloved Sidney Poitier – first African American to win a Best Actor Oscar (1963). Like Poitier, Boseman had a powerful presence on-screen and played a wide range of unforgettable roles. Like Poitier, he was the face of change in Hollywood ~ fifty years later.
And now with the news that he’d had Stage 3 cancer back in 2016, comes the realization that Boseman continued to perform while undergoing painful and debilitating treatments. Ask anyone who has undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation if they’re ready to go for a walk, let alone shoot an action film followed by international press junkets.
Boseman did so for four years and 10 films while secretly battling cancer. To me, this makes him one of the greatest actors of all time. Not to mention a real life superhero (who privately visited cancer patients in his spare time).
I still wonder what he might have brought to the world in the future. He could have been this generation’s Sidney Poitier, who is revered even today in his 90’s.
But maybe he already was. Because Chadwick Boseman, or King T’Challa to many, represented something positive, powerful, and changing in the world. He didn't just play a superhero. He was one. And he will inspire others for decades to come.
Sidenote: After years as an actor in smaller parts, Boseman was thrust into the limelight with the role of Jackie Robinson. Coming full circle, the actor passed away on MLB’s annual Jackie Robinson Day which had been re-scheduled from April due to COVID-19.