Part of what makes tragedy so overwhelming is that it often strikes randomly. It can feel exceptionally demoralizing when it happens in waves, and Murphy’s Law has been 2020’s running theme. When it seems like things can’t get worse, they do. Doomscrolling has conditioned us to expect more bad news at every turn, but it’s never any easier to cope with. That makes Chadwick Boseman’s death all the more devastating: It’s yet another tragedy in what feels like a relentless torrent of Black grief.
Boseman died Friday of colon cancer at just 43 years old. His death was blindsiding because he kept his four-year battle with the disease private. Director Ryan Coogler, who formed a special bond with the actor while working on 2018’s Black Panther, says that was characteristic of Boseman. “Chad deeply valued his privacy,” Coogler wrote in a moving statement, noting that he was also unaware of Boseman’s illness. A statement from Boseman’s family revealed that he completed numerous projects—from 2017’s Marshall to the upcoming adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—while undergoing chemotherapy and numerous surgeries. He was diagnosed just as his career was taking off and died just as he was hitting his stride. He did the work while carrying the weight of his own mortality on his shoulders—and while almost everyone who loved that work was completely unaware.
Although Boseman became an international star embraced by all, his relevance to Black people was unique because of the characters he portrayed and the scope of the films he appeared in. He played Jackie Robinson in his first major role, 2013’s 42. He played James Brown in 2014’s Get on Up. He played King T’Challa in three Avengers films and Black Panther. He played Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. And he played Stormin’ Norman Holloway in this year’s Da 5 Bloods. Boseman imbued each role with a sense of pride that resonated deeply with Black people because of what they symbolized, whether they were historical figures or fictional characters. His portrayal of several Black heroes helped him become one on his own, so it should come as no surprise that his death cut extra deep for Black people far and wide. It’s another loss at a time when it feels like there’s no reprieve. If police aren’t killing us, the government is grossly mismanaging a pandemic that’s killing us at a disturbing and disproportionate rate. People suffering from conditions like cancer are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, and Black people are at greater risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer. But even in death, Boseman stands out as a source of optimism—especially with the knowledge that another tragedy is inevitable.
Of all the important characters Boseman portrayed in less than a decade, his depictions of fictional characters stand out the most right now. In the Avengers films and Black Panther, he played the ruler and protector of an afrofuturist utopia who was trying to manage the weight of his own legacy. In capturing T’Challa’s moments of doubt and resilience, Boseman brought a calming sincerity to a character well aware of the massive responsibility that came with being a monarch and a hero. Representation only matters up to an extent, but Boseman understood the lasting impact of a film like Black Panther beyond its box office success. “The projects that I end up doing, that I want to be involved with in any way, have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people—to Black people,” he told the Los Angeles Times ahead of the film’s release in 2018. “To see Black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams.” What’s more, Boseman brought a keen sense of reality to his performance because he wanted it to stay with audiences long after they’d seen the film. “Even with a world that was make-believe, he wanted to connect it to the world that we know and could try to understand,” Lupita Nyong’o told The New York Times in 2019.
And it did—consider how deeply Black Panther has become embedded in popular culture. Boseman recognized how his presence factored into that. Even though he acknowledged it was important for children of different races to see him playing a Black superhero (“It’s just as important for a white kid to see me,” he told The Undefeated in 2018), he knew that it was especially important for Black children to see him in the lead role of the first Marvel film with a predominantly Black cast, one that has grossed over $1 billion worldwide to date. Where Boseman’s performance as T’Challa represented a grand ideal in terms of magnitude, his most touching came playing a different kind of leader in his last film released before his death: Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
In Lee’s latest, Boseman plays the fallen commander of a group of soldiers who have subscribed to his perspective for the sake of their sanity and survival. All were forced to cope with the horrors of being Black soldiers in the Vietnam War, but Norman embodied everything the rest of them wanted to be. He was their moral compass, their educator, their inspiration. He left an indelible mark on his fellow Bloods in a short amount of time, even attempting to alleviate fear at the moment of his demise. Boseman left his mark on the film in limited screen time, bringing a natural confidence and subtle complexity to the valiant Norman, a character forced to balance the frustration with his circumstances as a Black soldier with his duties as a leader. “His performance is testament to what he put into that role and all his roles,” Lee said over the weekend. It’s one of Boseman’s finest moments as an actor, but one of the proudest moments of his life took place on a different stage.
In 2018, Boseman returned to his alma mater, Howard University, as the commencement speaker. As a graduate of the historically Black college, coming back to speak at its graduation ceremony just three months after Black Panther became a cultural phenomenon was a victory lap in a sense. But Boseman knew the moment wasn’t about him, so he encouraged the class of 2018 to place finding purpose ahead of finding a job or a career:
Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.
Boseman’s death occurred at the end of another exhausting week, in what has been an exhausting summer, in an incredibly exhausting year. 2020 feels extraordinarily terrible because of the conditions under which we’ve been forced to experience it. It’s enough that the president has set fire to the Constitution, police continue to kill Black people with impunity, and a global pandemic has dramatically changed life as we know it. But processing grief in isolation, when it feels like more tragedy is imminent, is defeating. (Consider the fact that Boseman’s loved ones can’t even grieve him traditionally at this time.) Revisiting Boseman’s work right now is difficult because it’s a painful reminder that he was only beginning. He’ll never don Black Panther’s suit again. He’ll never play another groundbreaking figure, fictional or nonfictional. He’ll never reach his full potential. The world demands a lot from Black people—and this year has been particularly strenuous—but Boseman gave his all to make things better where he could.
Boseman understood that his work was bigger than him. Whenever he looked exhausted, it’s because he was. But Boseman decided to continue working when he could have stopped to focus on his health—and he had every reason to do so. Instead, he chose to keep going because of what his contributions did for Black people. We don’t need to valorize his strength, but we must be grateful for his choice because he made it for us. Spending his last years spreading joy is a true act of selflessness and an example of the sense of purpose he spoke about at Howard’s graduation. He chose to create work that will live on, even as he was dying. In his statement, Coogler said Boseman would send vegetarian recipes and diet plans for him and his family to follow during the pandemic. He would ask Coogler about his loved ones despite knowing that he’d likely never see him again. Even during the last months of his life, Chadwick Boseman chose to be a bright spot for others during dark times.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.