Peniel Joseph, Ph.D., is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin.
The death of Chadwick Boseman, the Howard University-educated, Anderson, South Carolina, native who became a global superstar for his riveting portrayal of King T’Challa in the billion-dollar-grossing superhero epic film, “Black Panther” brought me to tears. Boseman proved to be a singularly unique talent, one who combined the effortless grace of screen legend Sidney Poitier with the bristling confidence of the young Denzel Washington.
As an actor, Boseman possessed the rare ability to make the portrayal of real-life icons – from baseball’s Jackie Robinson to soul singer James Brown – three-dimensional human beings. Boseman’s portrayal of Robinson’s successful effort to integrate Major League Baseball never let the audience forget the raw psychic and emotional cost of his heroism. As Robinson, Boseman carried the weight of American racial injustice less as a burden than a responsibility. Over the course of the movie one is struck, more than once, by Boseman’s ability to radiate both Robinson’s nobility and simmering rage over that era’s failure to recognize his humanity.
Boseman’s regal performance as Robinson paved the way for him to headline “Black Panther” in 2018, the first of Disney’s almost two dozen comic book films to feature an almost entirely Black cast. “Black Panther,” set in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, turned Hollywood and much of American and global popular culture on its head. Deftly combining art, commerce and subversive cultural production, the film introduced, on a mass scale, an Afrofuturistic vision where Blacks were scientific geniuses, monarchs, diplomats and more. Boseman’s King T’Challa – the titular Black Panther – spars with Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger in a cinematic battle between political swords and shields that recalls MLK and Malcolm X.
“Black Panther” became the biggest film in cinema history anchored by a Black director, Ryan Coogler, and headed by a Black cast. It shattered myths that international audiences were turned off by Black movies, and it inspired a generation of Black young people who flocked to sold-out movie theaters to see (sometime two and three times) themselves visualized on the screen as three-dimensional human beings, some of whom were also superheroes. At last, we saw our complex Black selves portrayed on screen with a tenderness and dignity too often absent from mainstream cinema.
Boseman represented an entire generation of the young, gifted, and Black so often denied opportunities to creatively express themselves, to receive a quality education, build and generate wealth and travel around the world free of fear from law enforcement, racial terror or vigilante violence. In between a grueling schedule of movie promotion and filmmaking, Boseman took time out to visit terminally ill children and helped to organize a change Hollywood campaign that demanded Black representation at all levels of the filmmaking industry, from actors and producers to writers, set designers, craft unions and studio heads.
Boseman’s death, at the age of 43, from colon cancer, is especially tragic since that disease so disproportionately impacts African Americans. Over the course of his journey from South Carolina to Hollywood, Boseman managed to avoid the pitfalls of being cast as the stereotypical Black criminal, became an outspoken advocate of building an anti-racist film industry, and became a role model capable of delivering an inspirational commencement address at Howard University in 2018. He movingly paid tribute to his idol, Denzel Washington, in 2019 by saying there would be, “No ‘Black Panther’ without Denzel Washington,” who paid for Boseman’s summer acting training in England while he was still in college.
Amid all the praise lavished on Boseman since his death, I can’t help but feel some ennui, even bitterness, about our national failure to properly recognize and nurture young Black genius while it’s alive. The Disney-owned ABC television special showing of “Black Panther,” while moving, left me unsatisfied since I am aware that Boseman only received a flat fee for “Black Panther” and no profit participation, thus denying another Black family the generational wealth that helps build and secure future legacies. The Boseman family’s tweet announcing his death becoming the most liked tweet in Twitter history reflects an increasing awareness of the value of Black life, but remains bittersweet since such recognition so often comes only after Black death.
Chadwick Boseman epitomizes the importance of the phrase “Black lives matter.” Boseman’s servant-oriented leadership, talent and grace under pressure offer a profound example for us all. His seemingly effortless ability to combine art and activism, philanthropy and politics and grace with humor also exacted a hidden toll, that not only manifested in the cancerous cells that invaded his Black body. Boseman’s death reminds us of the structural violence and neglect that impacts Black folks, irrespective of income, status, or celebrity.
Rest in power, King. May your legacy be reflected in future generations creating a world where Black lives matter and flourish as radiantly as your soul.