“To be young, gifted and Black” this most powerful phrase was given to us by Chadwick Boseman at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards in 2019, when noting what the barrier-breaking role to be the Black Panther meant to him. On Aug. 28, 2020, the world suffered another blow this year when we lost Chadwick Boseman to colon cancer; he died at the age of 43.
In the past couple of weeks since, many have talked about Boseman’s career; he was truly one of the most indispensable actors and voices of our generation. Boseman, from a very early point in his career, was concerned with social justice. Boseman grew up in South Carolina, and from a young age, the death of a classmate due to gun violence inspired him to write a play titled “Crossroads” to address the shooting. Going forward, Boseman attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated with a B.F.A. in directing and had mentors, including Phylicia Rashad, and benefactors, including Denzel Washington who funded Boseman’s mid-summer program at the British American Drama Academy in London. Though Boseman also furthered his education, graduating from New York’s Digital Film Academy, and he worked as a drama instructor at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.
After moving to Los Angeles in 2008 to pursue an acting career, Boseman had small parts on TV shows, such as “All My Children,” “Law & Order” and “Lincoln Heights,” yet it was in the former soap opera role that he reflected his values of authenticity. While portraying Reggie Montgomery in “All My Children,” he spoke out and told producers to rewrite portions of the script that he saw as enforcing negative anti-Black racial stereotypes.
Hollywood is notorious for its lack of racial diversity, behind and in front of the cameras. This systemic racial exclusion has often led to Black artists and brilliance being marginalized and driven out of the industry. Boseman spoke about this in early 2019 while receiving accolades at the SAG Awards for “Black Panther”:
“[Black artists] all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured. … We knew we had something special that we wanted to give the world, that we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing, that we could create a world that exemplified a world that we wanted to see.”
UCLA’s 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report found that spaces in Hollywood are opening up somewhat for the oppressed, due to activism, but not much — for people of color and, similarly, women; women of color were seemingly the fewest allowed to participate. For example, by 2017, “Less than 1 out of 10 film writers are people of color” and only 12.6 percent were women. Of all the Black characters you see on screen, fewer than 10 percent were authored by Black people. These numbers held among the homogeneity of directors: Black and Indigenous people, people of color and women comprised only a bit more than 12 percent of directors.
This reality was echoed recently by Anthony Mackie, one of Boseman’s Marvel Cinematic Universe co-stars, who will be gaining the mantle of Captain America in the upcoming Disney+ series “The Falcon and Winter Solider,” in a Vanity Fair conversation with Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” and “Snowpiercer” fame; Mackie said the following to Variety: “We’ve had one Black producer; his name was Nate Moore. He produced ‘Black Panther.’ But then when you do “Black Panther,” you have a Black director, Black producer, a Black costume designer. … And I’m like, that’s more racist than anything else. Because if you only can hire the Black people for the Black movie, are you saying they’re not good enough when you have a mostly white cast?”
And that’s the point! Pigeonholing and sidelining Black people and people of color is racism in and of itself.
Boseman pushed back against these persistent trends because he knew that seeing a Black person or person of color on screen didn’t matter as much if our stories weren’t done justice. Many advocates and scholars argue that if the creatives are almost all white, then they can’t meaningfully connect with those stories. This carried through Boseman’s portrayal of Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”), Jackie Robinson (“42”) and James Brown (“Get on Up”) and even later through his action roles, such as in the hit Spike Lee film “Da 5 Bloods” or Netflix’s “Message to the King.” Yes, he even played someone with the last name “King.”
Boseman’s career path was ever-intentional. During a press tour amid the 2018 release of “Black Panther,” he said, “The projects that I end up doing … have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to Black people.”
Before his passing this year, Boseman was part of an effort of 300 Black Artists demanding that Hollywood divest from the police amid the contemporary civil rights movement in response to the murders of Black people. The public statement articulated specific ways the industry can cut out using police officers’ productions and how they could divest from anti-Black content and invest in Black Indigenous people’s, people of color’s and antiracist content.
Boseman was also a philanthropist who spent a significant amount of time doing charity work with children who were going through cancer treatment — all while secretly going through his own battle with cancer. He was diagnosed in 2016 and suffered through treatment and surgery privately, and while also filming epics such as “Black Panther” and the Avengers’ “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” he reached out and gave his time and money to young people who were going through similar trauma.
All over the internet and in the real world, people have been memorializing Chadwick Boseman, including the former U.S. President (i.e., the real president, in my heart) Barack Obama, and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris issued a tribute to Boseman as his last social media post was an Instagram post that celebrated her achievement as the first Black woman to successfully join a presidential ticket; and he urged people to vote.
This has even led fans of the “Black Panther” franchise to speculate as to whether or not the franchise will continue — will they recast the role of T’Challa/Black Panther or shift the role to his sister, Shuri, as they do in the comics. Rest assured that I have my own opinion on this as a fan, but as many have mentioned, it’s too soon to speculate on this, you insensitive fanboys! He just died! Chadwick Boseman’s life mattered, not just because he played one role! Respect him.
All in all, Boseman’s death was the gut punch that we didn’t need in 2020. Though, his legacy is a gift. A legacy of activism, of intentionality, of Black brilliance. He was a rising star that was lost too soon, and his stardom inspired many. Chadwick Boseman gave young Black and Brown children a hero, and particularly for the former, made Black pride and brilliance relevant in our culture’s stories while also reminding us of our very real, historical brilliance.
May you rest in power, King.
Read more in the Sept. 9-15, 2020 issue.