By Benjamin Noel
Chadwick Boseman was born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, a city whose idea of tradition involves a pointy white hood. He grew up playing high school basketball, and was good enough to play college ball. But after one of his teammates was shot and killed, he funneled his emotions into writing his first play, Crossroads. The play ran at his school, and Boseman realized his passion for screenwriting, and dropped the basketball for a pen and paper. He applied to Howard, a prestigious historically African American university that saw the likes of Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Sokeley Carmichael through its doors. There he studied directing under the tutelage of some of the finest African American actors in the business, namely Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show. To Rolling Stone, Rashad said of him, “What I saw in him was the sky was the limit. He never asked me to introduce him to anyone – that's not his way. He was going to make it on his own merits.”
After graduation, Boseman pursued further studies in acting, and settled down in Bed Stuy, New York and taught drama at the Schomburg Junior Scholars program in Harlem. He later moved to LA where he picked up minor roles in movies and TV programs, working towards, not waiting, for his big break.
Still relatively unknown at the time, Boseman was cast opposite Harrison Ford in his breakthrough role in the movie 42 as Jackie Robinson, a trailblazer whose life paralleled Boseman’s own. Boseman was born for this role, because he lived the struggles of being the only. The only black man on center stage, the only voice for his community, the only black hero for the kids to look up to. And he had the guts, as Ford says in the movie “the guts not to fight back” but to go on out there, and play ball.
And ball he played. Boseman picked up powerful roles as James Brown, Justice Thurgood, King T’challa, and stormin’ Norman, but he longed for more black and brown representation in Hollywood. He loved representing the black community in Hollywood, but why was it only him? Imagine Boseman’s reaction when people would say to him, “they’re going to pass the torch to you.” Why is there a torch to be passed? The black and brown members of Hollywood seem to be running a relay, handing off the spotlight every time a new cat comes into the scene. But Brando didn’t pass the torch to Pacino. Nor did Depp to DiCaprio. The individuals are all great actors of their own merit, with their own nuanced styles. So why should one black man have to pass on his legacy to the next, as if they were one and the same?
Boseman said to The Undefeated, “I don’t think that’s right, because it’s possible for there to be a Chris Pine, or a Chris Evans and Chris O’Donnell and a Chris Hemsworth and all the other Chrises, but it can only be one of us at a time? That is part of what’s wrong”
By representing African Americans on the silver screen, Boseman strived to make melanin a mainstay, not a sidekick, in the industry. He respected the gravity of his roles, and refused to portray African Americans as anything less than excellent. Even pre 42, when his career was young, he stood up against degrading lines or actions that lacked respect for black skin. He vehemently called out racist stereotypes in the All My Children script, which lost him that role. And he carried on his rock solid moral philosophy in his bigger appearances. In portraying King T’challa, the ruler of a prosperous African nation untouched by European colonizers, he refused to speak in a colonized anglicized accent for the convenience of the audience. Boseman pushed the studio for English to be spoken with an authentic African accent, but they were hesitant. If we can catch on to an Irish accent, why not an African one? In the movie, when speaking English, Wakandans have a Xhosa accent, a language spoken in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Boseman's unapologetic holistic portrayal of African culture shows that cultures need not be Westernized to be advanced, and that programs need not play into racist stereotypes to be funny.
In 2016's Gods of Egypt, Boseman played the role of the deity Thoth, providing the audience a fresh breath of African representation in the otherwise whitewashed collection of the Egyptian gods. He agreed with critics of the casting, saying that he took on the role to make sure at least one deity had African roots. But he told The Stone dryly, “But, yeah, people don't make $140 million movies starring black and brown people."
To the man who two years later made a $200 million dollar movie starring beautiful black and brown people, cheers.
Born in a hotbed of Klan activity, Boseman had more than his fair share of snarls, derogatory words, and evil eyes thrown his way. But he ate them up, and focused on his calling, on building up his fellow African American through film. This man went through the grinder, and came out the other side smiling ear to ear, as he lived his life to the fullest, sowed and reaped his talents, and laid down the foundations for the future of a community much bigger than himself.
While battling colon cancer privately for the past four years, Boseman did not take a break from portraying powerful black figures on the silver screen, but he sadly passed away due to complications on August 28th of this year, at the age of 43.
To Chadwick Boseman, the man who gave black kids their superhero, while quietly fighting the battle for his own life, Yibambe.
Ryan Ford '23,