“Long Live the King,” the appropriate tagline on the poster for 2018’s “Black Panther,” captures this moment in history. The significance of Chadwick Boseman, who died on Friday at 43 after a four-year battle with colon cancer, to the African American and Black community is immeasurable. When representing inspirational icons such as Jackie Robinson in “42,” James Brown in “Get on Up,” or Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall,” the depth of respect is to be expected. However, two years ago, Boseman asserted himself as a beacon of hope and legacy for current and future generations, when he starred in Marvel Studios’ first Black superhero film “Black Panther.”
Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, became a cultural phenomenon. Boseman’s poise and command of the screen latched on to the zeitgeist of a world being divided by political, social and cultural identities — as the United States was grappling with racism and xenophobia two years into President Donald Trump’s first term.
The outpouring from celebrities both in and out of the entertainment industry, including former President Barack Obama and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, provide the context of the legacy that Boseman made in his short career.
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Directed by Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther” was a smorgasbord of Black talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Grossing more than $700 million domestically, and becoming the 4th highest-grossing film of all-time in North America, the film proved to be more than another monetization success for Marvel. The film went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, the first for the superhero genre. It won three awards on the night, including production design for Hannah Beachler and costume design for Ruth E. Carter, both becoming the first African Americans to ever win their categories.
Sitting in a New York theater for the all-media critics screening, among colleagues and critics from the metropolitan area, the adoration and adrenaline filled the theater for 135 minutes. I can recall many memorable all-media screenings throughout my career, but very few held as much significance and soulful connection than witnessing the son of T’Chaka teach generations of superhero fans about courage, mercy and respect with the knowledge of his father’s shame and sin. “A boy not fit to lead,” is what Winston Duke’s M’Baku calls T’Challa during their duel. As Boseman showed us with his illness, he digs deep, finds the inner strength of his ancestors, and shows a man who is jealous and hates him mercy. I can’t remember the last time that a movie had been such an educational space.
Black megastars that have preceded Boseman — such as Denzel Washington and Will Smith — all had that singular moment in which their careers became more than their physical appearance. The reception from critics for “Black Panther” was resounding and passionate, which mirrored the feelings of the casual film-goers of the world, an agreement you don’t find too often with movies. His emergence as the newest prolific figure in Black cinema led to other projects and media figures in the Hollywood industry. including Spike Lee in “Da 5 Bloods” from earlier this year. Boseman’s final screen performance will be in George C. Wolfe’s upcoming adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” from Netflix.
The landscape of movies continues to evolve since the box office success of “Black Panther.” 2018 was a kinship that Boseman and his superhero character shared with all minority creatives. Although Boseman or any of the actors’ performances failed to garner Oscar’s attention, the film is cemented in a banner year for minority Academy winners. Rami Malek, Regina King and Mahershala Ali all won Oscars for acting, the largest group of minority acting winners in Academy history. As the 92-year-history of AMPAS shows, the public and greater cinematic enthusiasts don’t always pay attention to what won or was nominated, we will often talk about what wasn’t. Ask any film historian about “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo.”
Boseman’s contribution to cinema was never about himself and what he could offer. He wanted to see the larger, collective good brought to an art form he loved deeply. Although you can find a loud, robust number of internet movie lovers complain about “Green Book” winning best picture, Boseman’s dedication to his craft will likely serve as an inspiration for any kid in Anderson, S.C., or a young Puerto Rican/Black kid from the Bronx.
The results didn’t just impact the scope in which Black cinema is now being expanded, as seen in Black cinema’s upcoming works by filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins. Black Panther wasn’t just a symbol for the Black community; as is often overlooked, the Latinx community, full of rich, vibrant history shares its ancestry with Africa, proven by the talented number of Afro-Latinos who inhabit our world.
Watching T’Challa get dunked on by his sister Shuri, played by Emmy-nominee Letitia Wright, and taking in their mighty brother-sister dynamic and banter, is something that many Black and Brown movie-goers recognized within their own upbringing. Boseman brought the familiarity of our own lives, creeping into a science fiction realm but landing in the all too real reality of our own experience.
Another aspect that made Boseman’s turn as the king of Wakanda so profound is his precision and innate ability to access and elevate his co-stars. When the film won the best cast ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in early 2019, the actor’s guild rewarded 11 other actors that shared the screen with Boseman, including Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke and Wright.
During the acceptance speech, Boseman shares about the experience of going through the publicity run and receiving frequent questions regarding the anticipation of the film’s response. “Did we know the movie was going to receive this kind of response?” he says to his peers and viewers watching. “We knew we had something special that we wanted to give the world.”
To watch Boseman deliver the speech, now having the knowledge that he was battling colon cancer, and what you sacrifice for your craft as an artist, is deeply moving and will continue to be a pillar of the legacy that he has left behind.
“Too soon” is apt in describing Boseman’s death. “Courage and strength” is equally appropriate. In the words of Boseman himself, “To be young, gifted and Black.” That’s something we can hope all young Black and Brown children will carry with them for the rest of their lives.