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The Stories Chadwick Boseman Told

The actor, who died on Friday at the age of 43 from colon cancer, was known for playing Black heroes. But his true power was his ability to show that those heroes’ stories didn’t have to be fantasy.

Ringer illustration

A bright sky is brushed with streaks of ethereal purple as King T’Challa walks through the scattered grass of the ancestral plane, where his forebears stand in a line waiting for him to join them in the afterlife. But when his father appears and tells him that “the time has come” for him to leave the physical world, T’Challa balks. He has a duty to right the wrongs of those who came before him. “You were wrong, all of you were wrong,” he laments. “We let the fear of our discovery blind us from what was right.” It’s an arresting, awe-inspiring moment: He stands in the face of his great lineage, and he gracefully demands more.

Chadwick Boseman’s career was an exhibition in patience and soaring heights. A graduate of Howard University and the British American Drama Academy, he did not land his first leading studio role until the age of 36, when he starred as Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42. Virtually unknown at the time, Boseman inflected Robinson’s character with a piercing, multidimensional depth: He was fiery and reflective, stoic and unbending. At the core, Boseman embodied something virtually unseen in white Hollywood: a Black man whose liberation depended only on the remembrance of his own inherent worth. Boseman’s Robinson did not need the assistance of his white compatriots to find salvation; he was a man long before they bothered to recognize it, and he knew that the only way he could ever lose was if he let anyone convince him otherwise. Director Brian Helgeland spoke to The New York Times’ Reggie Ugwu about Boseman’s unflinching depiction:

It’s the way he carries himself, his stillness—you just have that feeling that you’re around a strong person … There’s a scene in the movie where Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, puts his arm around him as a kind of show of solidarity. But Chad flips it on its head. He plays it like, “I’m doing fine, I’m tough as nails, but go ahead and put your arm around me if it makes you feel better.” I think that’s who Chad is as a person.

Over the next seven and a half years, Boseman embodied a litany of other Black titans. In 2014, he made waves for his stunningly human portrayal of the godfather of soul, James Brown, in Tate Taylor’s Get on Up. Only Boseman could tap into the dueling toxicity and brilliance of America’s greatest entertainer, a mere 15 months after playing Robinson. In 2017, he landed another role as a civil rights hero, this time playing Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice and the lead lawyer in the seminal Brown v. Board of Education case in the courtroom drama Marshall. By this time it was a running joke among Black folks that Boseman would portray all of our heroes on screen. The joke was basically fact.

In terms of public perception, Boseman’s largest role was his portrayal of Marvel’s Black Panther—the first Black superhero in the history of American comics. Across four appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—most notably in the stand-alone Black Panther—Boseman brought an unflinching, charismatic dignity to the screen. As King T’Challa, Boseman was a man willing to be wrong; a prodigal shepherd to a great people; a Black king who had the courage to learn from the mistakes of his forefathers.

The release of Black Panther served as a landmark moment for representation in mainstream filmmaking. With an almost entirely Black all-star cast and crew, the film grossed $1.35 billion, the 13th highest total ever. It was the first time that a major studio had invested significant resources in such an expansive and uncompromisingly Black work. The movie dealt with questions of colonialism, anti-racist liberation, and the interconnectedness of the African diaspora, all the while formulating some of the most precise action sequences in any movie in the Marvel franchise. Across the country, communities that typically had been blocked from seeing themselves in mainstream filmmaking were finally included, and largely on their own terms. Boseman was the figurehead for that moment—and he was fully aware of the significance his position entailed. He embraced that responsibility. “We all knew this was unique,” he told The Guardian in 2018. “You’re not thinking: ‘Don’t screw it up,’ exactly. It’s more positive than that. It’s more like: ‘Seize it. Enjoy it.’ ... It’s like when you’ve been carrying a heavy backpack, after a while you forget it’s there. You get used to it.”

In Boseman’s last role before his death, in Spike Lee’s Vietnam war epic Da 5 Bloods, he played Stormin’ Norman, the leader of a group of five Black soldiers who dies during the war. As Norman, Boseman looks nearly angelic—he appears only in flashback, and is bathed in light, as he demonstrates his otherworldly wisdom. “He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” a character describes. Which is to say that he was more than just the best of them—he was their shining Black prince. In the wake of his death, one could say the same about Boseman.

The hero archetype can be a perilous concept. It is an innately human desire to romanticize leaders and generals, queens and kings. In spite of the inherent democratic contradiction, the annals of Western fantasy storytelling are littered with references to “good” and “just” royalty. We want to believe that there are those among us who can be better than we are—stronger, kinder, wiser. The hope is that if they can be better, then, maybe, they can lead us to be too. It is this very desire—and the urge to subvert it—that inspired George R.R. Martin to create his epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. In his view, a hero was just a person, no more adept at navigating the maze of life than the rest of us:

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences … Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.

The idea of Black royalty is similarly fraught. No matter how enticing the thought of a superpowered African king like T’Challa is to a people who have been traditionally excluded from the hierarchies of power, the inescapable reality is that in a true liberation, royalty cannot be a necessity for dignity. Individual figures like Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall always have been extensions of much larger movements, driven by a diverse set of interests far larger than just straight Black men alone. Depictions of exceptional Black heroes are, themselves, inadequate—we should not have to be exceptional to enjoy the fruits of humanity.

What made Boseman so special was that he knew this. As T’Challa he showed viewers a king who was graceful and strong, but also flawed. In 42, Boseman’s Jackie Robinson carried himself like he had multitudes in his palms and galaxies in his thoughts, because we do. Boseman’s greatest trick as an actor was that he made the best of us seem perfectly human. And in doing so he embodied something more than a star, or a leader, or a king. He was a monument to real power; Black power. The stories he wanted to tell were not fantasies. The stories he wanted to tell were about us.

In the wake of Boseman’s death, a once-viral video has gone viral yet again. From 2018, it had already morphed into a meme, but this weekend it was repurposed into an ode. In it, a group of Black girls and boys dance on their desks after being surprised by the news that they are going to a special screening of Black Panther. They are joyous, radiant, unbound—their possibilities are endless. I do not know how Boseman was able to do all that he did in his final years, with the knowledge and burden of cancer hanging over him. I would like to imagine that he persevered with scenes like this in mind. Those kids look regal; they look like they believe they can be anything. I know that Chadwick Boseman did that. And I am doubtful we shall see his like again.