Chadwick Boseman, the superstar actor who in an incandescent but painfully brief Hollywood career played Floyd Little, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and the Black Panther, has died, at 43, after a four-year battle with colon cancer. His death—and to most of the world, the diagnosis itself, as he battled his illness largely in private—was announced via his Twitter account Friday night, to immeasurable shock and grief.
From the moment he broke out as the star of the 2013 Robinson biopic 42, Boseman proved startlingly adept at bringing Black icons to life in ways that went beyond mere mimicry: Just one year later, in the 2014 Brown biopic Get on Up, he’d transformed into a volcanic and swaggering Godfather of Soul, a whirlwind of raw talent and bottomless charisma. You don’t let just anybody board the “Night Train”; nobody was worthy, really, until Boseman came along. Three years later, in the 2017 early-years courtroom drama Marshall, he had an altogether different sort of swagger as the man who’d one day become the first African American Supreme Court justice, but the same total command, an achingly human grace.
He first appeared as T’Challa in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, but it was Boseman’s marquee performance in 2018’s Black Panther—a crucial turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and comic-book movies as a whole, in terms of both representation and sheer Oscar-worthy quality—that turned him into an icon himself. In a promotional interview that year, he teared up while recounting the story of two kids he’d met who were battling terminal cancer diagnoses but were trying to hold on until the movie came out. “It’s a humbling experience, because you’re like, ‘This can’t mean that much to them,’” he said. But Black Panther, long before its release, had clearly become far more than just another MCU chapter, and “I realized that they anticipated something great.”
It is unfathomable now to think that Boseman himself was secretly battling cancer as he told this story, and as he seemed to thrive over a four-year span that brought two more mega-blockbuster Avengers movies, a starring role in the 2019 crime thriller 21 Bridges, and, in June, a key role in Spike Lee’s Vietnam-vet epic Da 5 Bloods. Boseman played a character named “Stormin’” Norman Earl Holloway, who is earnestly described by his worshipful fellow soldiers as “our Malcolm and our Martin.” Make a list in your head of who else could possibly bear that title, even in a work of fiction. He was the coolest and toughest and most revered human in a Spike Lee movie, which generally means you’re the coolest and toughest and most beloved human alive.
Boseman’s last completed role was opposite Viola Davis in the upcoming August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: more icons for him to stand among, to further bring to life, to have long ago proved himself worthy of. Whenever it’s released, it will be a painful movie to watch, but that’s now true of any of the films he made while battling cancer, unbeknownst to the vast majority of the millions of fans who revered him just as fervently as they revered the figures he portrayed. It felt like he could be anybody, and he made so many people Hollywood has historically underserved and disrespected feel like they could be anybody, too.