Marvel fans and movie enthusiasts worldwide are mourning the sudden death of Hollywood star Chadwick Boseman. The 43-year-old actor, best known for his portrayal of T'Challa — the king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda in Black Panther — passed away on August 28, 2020, after a four year battle with colon cancer. The news came as a shock to most people since the intensely private Boseman, who was diagnosed at stage 3 cancer in 2016 — the year King T'Challa debuted in Captain America: Civil War — never spoke publicly about his illness.
"A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much," his family said in a statement announcing his death. "From Marshall to Da 5 Bloods, August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy."
Born and raised in South Carolina, Boseman originally aspired to be a basketball player. But the loss of a teammate to a random shooting set him on a different path. "Basically, I wrote a play in response to it," he explained. "It wasn't about his death, but it was more so just me, trying to deal with the fact that it had happened. That was really the first time that I knew what it was like to create a story, be onstage, and deliver something and have an audience respond to it."
While pursuing a Fine Arts degree at Howard University in Washington, DC, he met Phylicia Rashad. The Cosby Show star, who became his professor and mentor, encouraged Boseman to study theater at the prestigious Oxford University in the United Kingdom during a summer program. After graduating, Boseman moved to Brooklyn, New York, to join the hip hop theater scene, before eventually being cast in small roles in television shows like CSI: N.Y. and Law & Order.
The actor first broke into movies in 2008 when he portrayed Syracuse football star Floyd Little in The Express. However, his rise to stardom came only seven years ago in 2013, when the then-35-year-old played Jackie Robinson — the first modern-era African American Major League Baseball player — in 42. His ability to humanize larger-than-life American icons — such as Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme court justice, in Marshall, and singer/songwriter James Brown in Get on Up further established Boseman's incredible acting talent.
When Marvel Studios decided to introduce Black Panther to their vast superhero cinematic universe in 2016, Boseman was the only actor they wanted. "We were sitting around a table. We were coming up with the story for [Captain America] Civil War [when] Nate Moore, our executive producer, suggested bringing in Black Panther because we were looking for a third party that wouldn't necessarily side with Cap or Iron Man. And almost instantly, we all said 'Chadwick,’" Marvel producer Kevin Feige said in a 2018 interview with Gizmodo.
Boseman, who had been an avid fan of the first black superhero to debut in American comics since a young age, persuaded Marvel executives to have King T'Challa speak with a South African-inspired accent, rather than the European one they had initially envisioned for the role. The actor thought it was necessary for the audience to feel like Wakanda was an authentic nation thriving without the influence of colonization.
Boseman's portrayal of T'Challa was a resounding success, with the "Wakanda Forever" symbol becoming a global phenomenon. Black Panther, which earned over $1.3 billion, is the only Marvel film to receive the best picture nomination at the Oscars.
Most importantly, however, was the representation that Boseman brought to the screen. The movie became a symbol of pride for black moviegoers across the world who were able to relate to the character and finally see themselves as superheroes. Boseman fully recognized the tremendous responsibility of the iconic role. During an acceptance speech at the 2019 Screen Actor's Guild award, the actor said, "We know what it's like to be told there isn't a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on. ... We know what's like to be beneath and not above. And that is what we went to work with every day."
While Boseman will undoubtedly be remembered for his cinematic achievements, he will be missed most for his gentle demeanor, selflessness, and incredible bravery. As Oprah Winfrey succinctly put it in her tribute to Boseman, "The way he handled his life and managing cancer with such humility and grace and dignity lets us all know that he truly was a superhero."
Rest In Power, Chadwick Boseman
Resources: gizmodo.com, vanityfair.com, empireonline.com, wikipedia.org