A Supreme Court justice and a trailblazing sports icon; the Godfather of Soul and the King of Wakanda: Chadwick Boseman couldn’t seem to help playing characters who were exceptionally, almost impossibly larger than life.
But the actor, who died Friday at the age of 43 after a four-year battle with colon cancer, always appeared to wear the mantle of those roles as lightly as any man could. “It’s not like I’m necessarily looking for important Black figures,” he told EW in 2017 on the eve of his Thurgood Marshall biopic Marshall. “Like James Brown, it just kept calling to me at a certain point when I was saying no; it was like James Brown was calling me himself. And Jackie Robinson, there was no way in the world I wasn’t going to do that.”
And so Boseman embraced the challenge, working ceaselessly — even in times when the storytelling or the circumstances around him fell short — to find the living, breathing men beneath the burnished icons he so often played. In Marshall, he said, he saw “a character that you would normally view as, ‘This is a civil rights figure,’ or a figure we’re supposed to pay homage to or hold on a pedestal. But that’s not exactly what he was. He was much more than that. He was a complete human being.”
So, too, of course, was Boseman; though his greatest act may have been how gracefully he slid away from the hotter glare of fame. An affable, generous interview subject and passionate speaker for social justice, he still somehow eschewed most of the conventional hallmarks of celebrity culture; the pull-quote confessionals and glossy persona-building that make a modern star. His private life, including his previously undisclosed marriage to singer Taylor Simone Ledward and ongoing health struggles, he kept largely to himself. (Though he was also, it should be said, consistently one of the best-dressed men on any red carpet, a low-key dandy who seemed to take a kind of unspoiled joy in the pure, far-out exuberance of fashion).
Instead he went to the mat for the causes he believed in, like Black Lives Matter and children’s charities, and put everything else into the work: In his mainstream breakout, 2013’s 42, he brought fierce, indomitable dignity to the role of Hall of Famer Robinson, the first man to break baseball’s color lines; only a year later he was electric as James Brown in Get on Up, a live wire with metronome hips and a six-inch pompadour.
Those roles, along with Marshall, cemented his status as a leading man, or at least the go-to for a certain kind of ambitious awards-circuit biopic. (If it felt like he rarely played contemporary figures, it may have been some fundamental quality of his character that made it so; a kind of essential, almost old-fashioned decency once embodied by golden-era stars like Jimmy Stewart or Sidney Poitier, and almost vanishingly rare today. It also may be true that those were simply the roles made available to him.)
But there could be no real preparation on his resumé, or any other mortals’, for the seismic impact of a part like Black Panther. To inhabit arguably the first true Black superhero on screen (Blade and Nick Fury fans, you have your own cases to make) could not have been less than nerve-wracking — the weight of what that represented to so many people, and what it might mean to fail. But again Boseman made the role entirely his own, embodying T’Challa with both gravitas and a kind of gentle, steady light.
At times, he could almost seem to recede next to the film’s Technicolor villains and audacious set pieces, generous to a fault. But that also felt like part of his gift: Even in blunter instruments like last year’s bloody-knuckled thriller 21 Bridges or Spike Lee’s bombastic, operatic Da 5 Bloods, out earlier this summer, he exuded a kind of innate elegance and emotional intelligence; a quiet force that consistently compelled the story to rise up to meet him.
That Boseman achieved nearly all of this after the age of 35 feels like far less a testament to the arc of his talent than to the depressingly familiar contours of Hollywood and race — an issue he addressed with characteristic grace while accepting a SAG Award for Panther early last year. “To be young, gifted and Black,” he said from the stage, surrounded in the collective glow of his costars. “We all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured. Yet you are young, gifted and Black. We know what it’s like to be told there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on. We know what it’s like to be the tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above.”
“That is what we went to work with every day,” he continued. “Because we knew — not that it would be around during awards season or that it would make a billion dollars. We knew that we had something special that we wanted to give the world.”
Over and over, that is the essence of what Boseman did on screen. And he’ll likely do it at least once more, in a coming adaptation of the prize-winning August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, due on Netflix later this year. It’s impossible, though, not to feel the immense loss of everything that will never be now — the untold parts left to play and doors still unopened. His performances, an indelible legacy, will stay; the man who made them left us far too soon.
—Additional reporting by Chancellor Agard.
Cover photograph: Sam Jones / Trunk Archive