Chadwick Boseman began his career playing African-American icons and pioneers; he ends it as one himself. His career has been cut tragically short, but his achievements, as an actor and as a cultural force, will surely prove to be as heroic as those of the characters he portrayed. At the very least, he leaves the film-making landscape looking very different to how it was when he entered it.
Boseman’s talents extended to not only inhabiting his roles but choosing them, too. As he once put it, he had a “manifesto”. From the outset, he was aware of the kind of stories he wanted to tell, even if it took a decade of soaps and TV parts to get there. His breakthrough was the 2013 movie 42, in which he played a genuine American legend: Jackie Robinson, the first significant black player in major league baseball. It was a slightly by-the-numbers sports biopic, but a story well worth retelling: how Robinson overcame racial animosity from much of the white-dominated postwar establishment, even his own Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, who signed a petition refusing to play with him. Manager Harrison Ford tells Robinson he wasn’t chosen because he was the sportsman, but because he had the strength of character to not fight back.
Hollywood circa 2013 wasn’t quite as hostile as 1940s baseball, but lead roles for actors of colour were still virtually unheard of unless you were Denzel Washington or Will Smith. Director Tate Taylor had to insist upon Boseman for the part of James Brown in Get On Up, in the face of studio pressure to cast a high-profile rapper. Seeing Boseman portray the virtually inimitable Brown at every stage of his life in Get On Up, from strutting young soul buck to drug-addled, shotgun-toting 60-year-old, it is easy to see why Tate stuck to his guns. Again, Boseman was playing an iconic African American figure – not as straightforwardly heroic as Robinson but equally pioneering in terms of breaking through race barriers.
Before getting to Black Panther, Boseman had one more door-opening historical role: Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who fought for civil rights in the 1940s, before becoming the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Often overlooked in Boseman’s catalogue, Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin, is significant in that its hero is not a sports figure, an entertainer or a victim; he is a black hero on account of his intellect. The smart, confident black professional paired with a white sidekick (in this case Josh Gad), the 1940s courtroom setting and era’s background racism bring to mind Sydney Poitier in Norman Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night.
To really pull off a part as iconic as Black Panther, Boseman had to possess many of the character’s qualities in real life: nobility, sensitivity, athleticism, technique and a great deal of natural charm (you surely can’t practise a smile as winning as Boseman’s). Christopher Reeves’s Superman springs to mind as a comparison. Boseman knew this was no ordinary role, even in superhero terms. There were superhero forerunners (Wesley Snipes in Blade, for example), but Black Panther was the vehicle for the aspirations and ambitions of an entire community, and an unprecedented test case for a black-led big-budget mainstream movie.
Raising the stakes even higher, Black Panther arrived in a moment of unprecedented cultural transformation: #OscarSoWhite had forced an examination of the movie industry’s attitudes to race; offscreen, the Black Lives Matter movement was mobilising against wider racial injustices in America. Both of those stories continue, of course, but Black Panther was a watershed – a story that stepped outside of the reality of African American life (which is what white-dominated Hollywood has traditionally focused on) and into realms of Afrocentric utopianism and mythology. Never before had a racially specific fantasy received such lavish budget and attention, and it was down to Boseman to hold it all together. He did so through a combination of natural ability and hard work.
Black Panther expanded the imaginative landscape and transformed the film-making one. It proved that skin colour was far less of a factor in box-office appeal than the gatekeepers of the industry had made it out to be, which in turn opened the door for a wider variety of actors and stories. Movies with leads of colour are now commonplace across the board, from Get Out to Sonic the Hedgehog, from Bad Boys 3 (currently the highest grossing movie of 2020) to most recently, John David Washington in Tenet.
“Pre-Panther, if you were trying to finance a movie with a black lead who wasn’t Will Smith or Denzel Washington, it was challenging,” says director Brian Kirk. “That movie changed the sense of possibility around that. It allowed other people, like me, to be in a position where we could be looking for lead actors irrespective of colour. That is liberating for all storytellers, and for all people.” Kirk directed Boseman in last year’s 21 Bridges, a pacy New York police thriller. It was co-produced by the Russo brothers, directors of Marvel’s most recent Avengers and Captain America instalments, and Boseman himself.
“As a person he was biographically quiet,” says Kirk, “in that he didn’t talk about himself or the burdens attendant on him, or go into a lot of details about his family, but he was very emotionally open, which is a sort of paradox.” By the time of 21 Bridges, Boseman was a huge celebrity, of course. Real-life police they met researching the movie were visibly awed by his presence, and crowds of kids gathered around shooting locations, says Kirk. “He had endless amounts of generosity for them. He understood the importance of being a positive and available role model. He was an amazing actor and he was a genuine movie star. To be one of those things is rare, to be both is pretty incredible.”
Boseman originally studied directing, and took up acting as a sideline. As his producing roles suggest, his long-term manifesto probably including being behind the camera as well as in front of it. He leaves behind a game-changing legacy, but it feels like his career was just getting started.
Our most recent image of Boseman – although it is not his final role – was another role-model character: Stormin’ Norman in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. He plays the leader of a group of African American soldiers in the Vietnam War – not just militarily but also morally. It is Boseman’s character who commits to redistributing their reappropriated gold to black neighbourhoods back home, and who calms his rebellious brothers after they learn of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and are minded to turn their guns on their white comrades rather than the Vietcong. On screen, as in life, it seems, Boseman is the natural authority figure, who carries responsibility with apparent ease and charm, whatever the cost behind the scenes.