Why Chadwick Boseman Was A Sage And King Who Knew To Make Every Moment Count
When I learned that Mr. Boseman had passed, the first thing I thought of was his own words.
August 30, 2020 at 8:30 am
In physics, the observer effect theorizes that observation changes the behavior of a subject. In psychology, a similar theory exists pertaining to human behavior: people change when they know you see them. The real personality, with its quirks and idiosyncrasies, is only revealed when they think no one’s watching. I’ve noticed this since I was a child.
A painfully shy introvert and a nerdy, geeky bookworm, I was ostracized by the other kids and ignored by the adults. So, I went inward, a little boy hiding behind glasses too big for his face. Behind those lenses though, my eyes were intently trained on others. In this way, I’ve learned to read people and note when they are their most honest. That’s why, recently, I started taking more note of Chadwick Boseman. I’ve always loved his movies, where he presented with unwavering intensity, no emotion untouched. Yet, for the past few years, in interviews, appearances and the typical Hollywood fare, there was a certain disconnect, different from his earlier persona. Even during the Black Panther press runs, the other actors were so present, but Chadwick was a man apart. And I couldn’t help but wonder how he could be at the peak of his fame and career, yet seem so distant. Perhaps, I thought, it’s just his personality, fatigue or even his new superstardom.
Now, we learn that the stunningly gifted Chadwick Boseman has left us at only 43 years of age, after battling colon cancer. As we celebrate his talent, art, and accomplishments, I feel I finally understand that “disconnect” I’ve picked up from him. Perhaps I’m projecting, and so be it, but I think he was what the poet Jay Wright called, “in transit from knowledge to knowing.” You see, per his family’s revelation, Chadwick Boseman has known he’s had stage III colon cancer since 2016, well before he even began Black Panther. He quietly wore this reality, never revealing it, while continuing to star in movies that demanded emotional wherewithal and, in the case of his action films, feats of exceptional physical strength and development. He tirelessly taxed his mind and body, even while he moved in transit from knowledge to knowing that his stage III colon cancer was rapidly advancing to a terminal stage IV. And now I can’t help but think: No wonder he seemed preoccupied, a man apart, disconnected, eyes burning with intensity, but not fully present in the moment.
Chadwick Boseman was navigating Hollywood, with all its triviality, while upon his shoulders pressed the weight of knowing mortality — the knowledge that only comes when a person confronts the reality of a promised terminus that is well before the normal natural length of life. Further, he was attempting to fulfill a personal artistic destiny, even as the very instrument by which he created art — his own body — was failing him. Now, as we celebrate his life, I can’t help but regard him in awe. Whether it is the grace, strength, honor, fortitude and nobility with which he pressed on to the mark of his calling, or the purposeful way he navigated Hollywood to open doors and create spaces for Black people, here was a man for all seasons!
Chadwick Boseman attended the historically-black Howard University in Washington, D.C. He trained under the direct tutelage of Phylicia Rashād, the legendary Black actress, singer, stage director and our beloved Claire Huxtable. From the start, Boseman has had a very clear goal in his work: to tell Black stories and to create space for Black actors in leading roles. That’s not easy in a film industry that often relegates Black stories to niche tales and Black actors to supporting roles.
From 2003 to 2012, he fought his way through bit parts and small television roles on shows like Third Watch, Law & Order, and CSI: NY. They loved him in that genre because his signal characteristics as an actor were perfect for it: a grounded sense of personhood and presence, coupled with a fervent and pure emotional honesty. Yet, his talent was meant for more. In 2013, after nine years of small parts, he secured his first starring role in 42, the story of the first Black major league baseball player, Jackie Robinson.
Since then, a look at his filmography reveals the very intentional way he crafted his career to achieve his initial goal of creating space for Black actors and Black stories: taking only starring roles or supporting roles that afforded him significant performance space to develop his character. In Get On Up, he played James Brown, the famous soul artist who changed the sound of American popular music for decades to come. With feverish zeal and acuity, he captured Brown’s personal life, which oscillated from the heights of glory to the absolute depths of darkness.
His commanding presence, kaleidoscopic emotional range and rooted sense of self attracted filmmakers to him. He was the Egyptian god Thoth in Gods of Egypt, the star of Message from the King, T’Challa/Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War and star of the Thurgood Marshall biopic, Marshall. He was then asked to reprise his T’Challa the Black Panther role in a new movie that would be totally centered around a classic Black comic superhero — a first. Perhaps, even he couldn’t guess the the coveted heights of fame the performance would bring, or that he’d be established in the cinematic pantheon.
Black Panther, featuring Boseman in the starring role with a predominantly Black cast in all the major supporting roles, broke numerous box office records, becoming the highest-grossing solo superhero film of all time, the highest grossing film by a Black director of all time, the ninth highest grossing film of all time and the second highest grossing film of 2018. Nominated for seven Oscars, it was the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture and the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to win an Oscar; in fact, it won three Oscars for Best Costume Design, Best Original Score and Best Production Design. Even more, it became a cultural event. Black people and families across the diaspora, on every continent, rented out entire movie theaters, donned clothing of African cultural design and supported the film. For a brief beautiful moment the arms-over-the-chest Wakanda salute and the “Wakanda forever” catchphrase became a symbol of Black power.
Boseman became a household name and international superstar. The famous line “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” has followed Robert DeNiro for decades after his groundbreaking work in Taxi Driver. People still repeat Whoopi Goldberg’s famous “Molly, you in danger, girl!“ line from Ghost, or the “Until you do right by me …” line from The Color Purple. For years, Marlon Brando dealt with fans yelling “Stella!”, lamenting “I coulda been a contender!” or whispering “the horror!” from A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and Apocalypse Now. While Sidney Poitier’s “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” line from In the Heat of the Night is still a classic. That’s the mark of a great performance: when lines become pop culture phenomenons.
Likewise, Boseman’s performance was immortalized; he became known as the Black Panther, and Wakanda salutes and shouts of “Wakanda forever!” announced his presence. He reprised the role in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, starred in and produced 21 Bridges, acted in Da 5 Bloods with icon Delroy Lindo and will soon share the screen with Viola Davis in the forthcoming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He also became The Doctor Chadwick Boseman when, in 2018, Howard University bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate.
Now, he has left us, beholding the mystery of transformation from one form to another. When I learned that Mr. Boseman had passed, the first thing I thought of was his own words. I don’t think that’s a mistake. With those rare and truly gifted people, I have learned that their words of wisdom often apply to their own life. And so it is with Chadwick Boseman. On the occasion of Denzel Washington’s AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr. Boseman was one of the people invited to speak in honor of Mr. Washington, and he brought the generally stoic and cucumber-cool Denzel to tears with gorgeous words that quoted ancient adages while incanting lines from the biblical book of Proverbs:
“An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith … now let he who has watered, be watered.”
May Chadwick Boseman’s own words now honor him. He was a sage and a king, and his offering to the human collective was art that imitated, channelled, empowered, invoked and celebrated life through the cinematic medium. That offering is more than silver and gold; it truly is a seed of hope and a bud of faith. And now, his spirit, his memory and his art will be watered eternally by the love of the billions he inspired, influenced and uplifted.
Rest peacefully, Chadwick Boseman.