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Chadwick Boseman Has Played (Almost) Every Black Superhero

A look back at the ‘Black Panther’ star’s unparalleled run embodying (nearly) every black man worthy of a biopic or comic series

Universal Pictures/Marvel Studios/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Six days ago, Paramount Players and Imagine Entertainment announced that a Gucci Mane biopic was officially in the works. This is both good and just. As a figure who has transcended human being to become human glacier—a trap god, if you will—Gucci deserves to be immortalized in film. But the production companies failed to answer one important question: Who will be playing the iconic rapper turned deity? Noisey suggested Chadwick Boseman, and while you may think that’s a joke, I’ll have you know that it’s also the safest, soundest, and most sensible choice. I can see Boseman now, ballooned up to 300 pounds, mulling over his life choices, scrawling on a legal pad in Pretend Terre Haute Penitentiary.

Who else would it be? Who else could it be? Seriously, who else? When it comes to the question of who should portray a famous, important black man to a wide audience, Hollywood casting directors have been at a loss. Chadwick Boseman has been cast as every black hero, partly because he has been cast as every other black hero. If that sounds tautological, it’s because it is. But I’m happy to unpack the idea a little:

Imagine you’re a big-shot executive. You have a movie you want to make, centered around a black cultural or historical figure. After a long fight to keep the project alive that usually counts at least one director among its casualties, you turn to an actor with some notoriety to play the central black character, to get audiences in the door. This will often be the actor or actress who played the last big role in the last big black film. If that character is a black woman—say Tina Turner or Betty Shabazz or Voletta Wallace—you’ll probably call Angela Bassett. If it’s a black man, you’ll call Chadwick Boseman. I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining; I’m simply laying out facts. None of this takes away from how Boseman does his job. He’s very good at it.

Often, Boseman’s performance is the best thing about these movies. But on the occasion of Black Panther, the latest movie in which Boseman plays another black hero—which Bassett also stars in, for the record—we should look back at all the other black heroes he’s been. There have been a few.

Jackie Robinson

Boseman was a guest star on Justified before this, apparently as a close-up magician named Flex who gets shot at the end of the first episode he appears in. Needless to say Boseman was necessarily unmemorable there, and I had to Google that it even happened. Still, the relative newcomer did a fine job of playing the first black player in the major leagues, even if he didn’t really do much to make Jackie Robinson a complete character, strictly speaking. That wasn’t what he was there for—he was there to offer opportunities for other characters’ teachable moments and mea culpas. He was an avatar for inclusion and progress more than anything. By the time Boseman played the character in the 2013 film, the real Robinson was already being celebrated one day each April on which every MLB player wears no. 42. Hence the title.

The best scene, by which I mean my favorite scene, is the one in which Boseman’s Jackie shows a human measure of frustration by breaking a bat in the tunnel, because everyone, everywhere, is so racist. (Even this happens only so Harrison Ford can tell him he needs to be The Bigger Person.)

James Brown

Get on Up, released in 2014, follows the life and times of the Godfather of Soul. Spike Lee was attached to the movie at one point, which might make you wonder about what might have been because the Tate Taylor–directed release ended up so meh.

To be clear: meh, with the exception of Boseman. He was solid to the tune of $95 million at the box office in 42, but in Get on Up, he physically transformed. The biggest thing was that he got The Walk right: his pigeon-toed strut included just the right amount of swaggering. Also, he was not sexy, but sex itself. He captured the performance, the urgency, the sweatiness of being James Brown. Both of these are on display at the end, where an “old” Boseman in a lot of restricting makeup reconciles with his estranged friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) by singing “Try Me.”

I have no clue if anything in this scene is factually true, but damn if I didn’t believe it.

Vontae Mack

Never mind that Yung Chadwick looks more like a Ciroc spokesperson than a pro-football-player-in-waiting in this clip from Draft Day. What’s happening is that a GM (Kevin Costner) is being talked into drafting a linebacker from Ohio State (Boseman, who again does not look like a linebacker) with the no. 1 pick. (Draft and Draft Day expert Riley McAtee determined that Vontae Mack was a seventh-pick value at best.) But in the end Mack hectors the Browns front office into believing in his talent, which they then agree to pay him large amounts of money for. He did this while talking and tweeting from a phone with a brass knuckle case on it.

[Writes “FINESSE” on the surface of the moon with high-powered laser.]

Thurgood Marshall

Having already been Robinson and Brown, Boseman became Thurgood Marshall in 2017’s Marshall. It almost goes without saying that Boseman’s performance in the historical drama was the kind that got reviewers to say words like “convincing” and “inspiring.” But still, it feels like a unique accomplishment when you consider the handicap he started with: looking almost nothing like Thurgood Marshall. But Boseman produced a Marshall whose elbows were sufficiently out, and who was righteously assured enough in the stark difference between good and bad things. (He also got a boost from playing the eventual Supreme Court justice early in Marshall’s career, taking on a lesser-known case.)

Thoth

You remember Gods of Egypt, right? The 2016 movie is loosely—very loosely—based on Egyptian mythology.

Somehow Set, the god of storms, was played by Gerard Butler. Horus, god of the sky, was Jaime Lannister, and the sun god, Ra, was played by Geoffrey Rush. Chadwick Boseman portrayed Thoth (god of the moon). As such, he was one of the few non-white actors in Alex Proyas’s film. Again, this is a movie set in ancient Egypt. The stark whiteness of the film’s cast did not go over well. Asked in 2015 by GQ about the controversy, Boseman said that he was glad audiences were infuriated. “People don’t make $140 million movies starring black and brown people,” he said, shaking his head.

How big was the production budget for Black Panther again? Doesn’t matter. It’s going to make that back twice over this weekend. And when it does, we can meet back here to discuss whether Boseman’s performance is inspiring, towering, and indeed the best part of the movie, and what that means for his impending turn as Radric Davis (it’s going to happen, guys, I swear). But when it comes time to make a movie about Young Thug’s life, let’s try going out of network for the lead.