By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
The recent death of Chadwick Boseman at age 43, was a brutal gut punch for millions who were inspired by his ascent, and shocked by his all too short life.
Boseman, who battled colon cancer for four years before ultimately succumbing to the disease, brought life to Black icons like Jackie Robinson in the film, 42, James Brown in the movie, Get On Up! and Thurgood Marshall in the film, Marshall.
Yet, he may have achieved icon status himself as an actor with his portrayal of a fictional character, T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, the Black Panther.
What was it about Boseman’s depiction of the Marvel comic book character, the Black Panther, that resonated so deeply with so many?
Well, there are a lot of reasons. On the surface, when it comes to the 21st century art of filmmaking, the crafters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are in some ways unparalleled. The top 10 money making MCU films have grossed approximately $14.42 billion worldwide. Of those films, Black Panther was the top money maker featuring a solo hero grossing $1.347 billion as of April 2020, number five overall. However, Black Panther was not just a fiscal sensation; the movie was the only MCU film ever nominated for an Oscar in the acting category.
The technologically superior, independent Kingdom of Wakanda is affirmation of an Afrofuturistic ethereal vision of Africa uninterrupted, which fired the imaginations of tens of millions of members of the African diaspora. And there are millions of others who were mesmerized by the story of Wakanda and its king.
Of course, at the center of the Black Panther global phenomena is Boseman’s glorious performance as T’Challa. The charismatic actor oozed the regal bearing of the king he portrayed. What we discovered during his short time as a movie star was that it was an inherent quality in Boseman. He was an incredibly formidable actor, who seemed to also be implausibly gracious and humble.
Perhaps it was that humility and a reportedly intense desire to protect the privacy of him and his family, that caused Boseman to keep his colon cancer diagnosis a secret from the larger world. It was a deadly secret that has devastated millions of his fans globally.
Infeanyi Nsofor, the director of policy and advocacy at a health group called Nigeria Health Watch and a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, offered the following reflection on Boseman in a commentary for National Public Radio:
“In my Igbo culture, when a great king passes on, we say, “Oke osisi adaala n’obodo,” which means “a great tree has fallen in the land.” It is a rare occurrence for great trees to fall,” wrote Nsofor. “However, the fall is also not the end of the tree because its deep roots ensures it keeps sending out new sprouts. Boseman’s life is like that. Part of him will continue to live on through his films and inspire us, especially his role as King T’Challa in Black Panther.”
Perhaps, one of the best public testimonies to the essence of Boseman was witnessed during his praise for one of the greatest American actors of his generation, Denzel Washington. The story goes that Boseman was one of a group of students mentored by actress Phylician Rashad, who taught at Howard University where Boseman graduated from. Those students were accepted at the British American Drama Academy’s midsummer program, but could not attend because they couldn’t afford it. However, after Rashad put in a call to her friend Washington, the legendary actor agreed to pay the tab for all of the students including Boseman.
“An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith,” said Boseman during the 47th American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award presented to Washington on June 6, 2019.
“There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington. And not just because of me, but my whole cast, that generation stands on your shoulders,” added the visibly gaunt, but spiritually towering Boseman on that night.
After Boseman’s death, it was the great Washington who offered his praise of the young actor many referred to as, “the next Denzel.”
“He was a gentle soul and a brilliant artist, who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances over his short yet illustrious career,” said Washington in a statement.
“God bless Chadwick Boseman.”
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Senior Reporter and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities