Yesterday, the world lost a bright and promising, burgeoning talent in Chadwick Boseman.
I had wondered privately for a while if something was wrong with him, as others had as well online, as he appeared increasingly sicker with each interview he gave over the last two years. I thought maybe I had been looking too much into it, not wanting to jump to conclusions about who he was but now gravely we all know why.
The much too young star of films such as “42,” “Marshall,” and of course, “Black Panther” had been fighting a largely private battle with colon cancer for four years.
It was devastating hearing this news yesterday, the man who undeniably left behind a legacy of playing prominent black heroes, both historical and fictional, passed away just as he was starting to truly hit it big. When you begin to realize the man was dealing with cancer as he performed physically demanding roles in the MCU you begin to see the character and determination of a man unwilling to quit in the face of true adversity.
But he clearly wasn’t just doing it for himself when he continued making and promoting NINE more movies despite his diagnosis, afterall no one would’ve blamed the guy for taking it easy these past four years. He’s had many scenes that define his legacy over his all too short career but I feel it can really be summed up in one particular moment from by far his most famous film; “Black Panther.”
Those who know me or have read my work know that I have a fairly cynical relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I would not say most of them are “bad” per se, I would say a ton of them are largely interchangeable action comedies with pretty straightforward messages about good vs evil for general audiences. They are largely popcorn escapism and though there is nothing technically wrong with that, I was starved for an MCU film that was sincere about its story finally and had something real to say.
Enter “Black Panther” in early 2018.
“Black Panther” was everything I had long been waiting for in the MCU; a film with a real sense of vision and theme, a killer soundtrack, great supporting characters, a complicated and nuanced villain, and a story that didn’t feel the need to add a joke after every single scene like more typical MCU movies. The tip of that spear of course was Chadwick, who had already proved to be a great Black Panther in one of the few other sincere Marvel flicks “Civil War.” His natural charisma, physicality, and dramatic presence in this role made him a huge standout in frankly the best ensemble cast of any superhero movie ever.
The scene that truly sums up not just the mark “Black Panther” left on Hollywood but Chadwick’s own legacy comes at the very end though (the first of three, of course. It’s an MCU movie, afterall).
T’Challa has defeated his usurper cousin Erik Killmonger, his rule restored in Wakanda but clearly a changed man from the story’s beginning as he reckons with the complicated legacy of his father. He travels to Oakland, the birthplace of Killmonger, with his sister Shuri who he explains the crime committed by their father in this place and how it set off the events of the story. He turns to Shuri, tells her that he has decided to help this afflicted community by creating a Wakandan outreach center for the youth to give them a new hope in life. As he says this he decloaks their ship nearby, surprising the youth already in the area who are immediately in awe of it. One of the kids turns to T’Challa, smiling, a sense of inspiration and intrigue brewing inside, and asks “Who are you?” to which the young King simply smiles, then the credits roll.
It’s a simple scene but it truly speaks to the impact left behind by Chadwick and the importance of representation.
“Black Panther” is hardly the first starring vehicle for a black man, it’s not even the first black super hero movie but what it made it different is it was the first blockbuster to truly lean unapologetically into its African identity to focus on the inspiration of a story centered around that culture. It showed Hollywood that an action blockbuster not just centered on a black star but centered on African culture had vast widespread appeal.
White kids will never have a shortage of white superheroes to grow up with on the big screen; a diverse palette of Supermans, Spider-mans, Captain Americas, and shit we’re even getting our sixth new Batman actor since 1989 soon. But Chadwick gave black kids their first real Superman of their own.
In the years since this came out, I have seen the influence, at times, firsthand among the youth. I work part-time as a kids martial arts instructor and each Halloween party we’ve held I’ve seen a few more T’Challas among the costumes represented. When I ask kids, black, white, or Asian, what their favorite superhero is, it always warms my heart to see a kid light up when they say “BLACK PANTHER!”
This goes beyond just my anecdotal observations of course; the film grossed a billion dollars, and there are countless videos online of kids yelling “Wakanda forever!” at the top of their lungs while rocking a Black Panther suit or reciting one of the movie’s memorable lines. It’s beautiful because it speaks to that last scene’s key message; inspiration.
Growing up myself, as a half Asian American, there weren’t a ton of role models who looked like me to take inspiration from. I didn’t really understand how much this could affect me until I finally did start seeing people like myself occupy positions of influence. I didn’t start caring for baseball until I saw a slugger named Hideki Matsui smash a couple dingers in a Yankees’ uniform in the early 2000s. I didn’t care much for martial arts, outside my very early youth, until I witnessed a half Japanese Brazilian named Lyoto Machida KO Thiago Silva at UFC 94 in 2009. I didn’t care much for soccer until a striker named Keisuke Honda played out of his mind in the early rounds of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Sometimes you gotta see something happen in order to believe and be inspired by it and it’s easier to visualize it when you see someone who looks like you do it. That’s what representation means and why it’s important.
It’s easy for white America to dismiss the need for representation in media when theirs is so saturated in the culture everyday. Cries of “wHaT aBoUt wHiTe HiStORy mOnTH?!” delivered unironically while their history is proudly given front seat consideration in all forms of media, film, and influence every day. This is why it drives me so crazy when a white person tells me “representation isn’t important” because apparently, they “don’t need it.”
Well motherfucker, of course you don’t need it. You fucking got yours already!
“Black Panther” delivered a superhero that not only black children could be proud of and love but someone they could draw inspiration from. Kids are going to want to become film directors cause of this movie, actors, stuntmen, martial artists, scientists, engineers, and so many other different things that the world of Wakanda proudly showcases and it’s all thanks to Chadwick’s leading man performance that made it possible.
Some jokes I’ve heard frequently on the internet is that Chadwick was on somewhat of a quest to play every major black role in story-telling history, what with performances as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, and of course Black Panther. But I think his 2018 speech at his Alma Mater of Howard really explains why he kept looking to play these major positive black roles.
Hollywood likes to pigeon hole certain demographics of people (aka non-white) to play stereotypical roles forever until they are proven to be lucrative in different ways (Qualified Immunity of film-making if you will…). Black people largely could mostly play thugs and drug dealers, Latinx can only be gang bosses and poor servants and gardeners, Asians are either kung fu masters or some other offensive perpetual foreigner. And in worst cases no role at all, instead whitewashed for general audiences (aka white folk).
Chadwick took a stand that the color of his skin did not define who Hollywood narrowly believed he could perform as and set out to play characters and people who could inspire a new generation of African Americans and show the rest of the country that they were more than a stereotype.
When that young kid in that final scene asks, “Who are you?” and T’Challa smiles its because he knows he’s already changing hearts and minds for the future, just as Chadwick did playing this truly inspirational role.
“Black Panther” is not a perfect movie. I could discuss the ways it could’ve been better and even, less problematic in parts on a different day, but the legacy it leaves behind is one that’s undeniably positive and Chadwick was able to make that a reality. Perhaps he understood that if the world knew his diagnosis it would blunt the impact of “Black Panther’s” release, that if little kids and African Americans alike knew their superhero was already dying it would mar the film’s positivity and influence. I can’t speak for the dead obviously, and in no way am I saying one should just push through a cancer diagnosis and keep it secret, but I can see Chadwick understanding what it would mean for the audience if they just believed for as long as possible that they would have their king of Wakanda forever.
As Robert Downey Jr. said on social media last night “He leveled the playing field while fighting for his life.”
Though I will never know him personally, by most measures Chadwick seemed to be exactly the kind of hero he showed up to be on the big screen and his legacy will ultimately be that of one who looked to inspire others, particularly the next generation until his final breath. If that doesn’t make him a hero, I don’t know what does.
Rest in power, King. Wakanda Forever…