Like many filmgoers, I went to see Black Panther (2018) and was completely knocked out by it – one of Marvel’s greatest comic book characters finally realising its true cinematic vision. Little did we know that it’s main star Chadwick Boseman, who oozed charisma onscreen as the titular superhero, will not only be cemented as a fan favourite amongst moviegoers, but will also come to be cherished as a joyful personality who broke racial barriers that the Hollywood system have shamefully held for decades. His career was tragically short-lived at 43 years old but in his passing, Boseman has formed an extraordinary legacy that many young actors will aspire to follow as well as not just opening doors, but smashing them down to allow more opportunities and recognition for people of colour within today’s film industry
Before the world came to know him as a King, Boseman was already gaining admirers through a handful of biopics. His first lead role was Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), who was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) during the modern era (the film’s title refers to his jersey number). He considered giving up acting and switching to a career in directing before auditioning for the part, but director Brian Helgeland chose Boseman because of his bravery; a word that laid the groundwork and will come to define his later film roles.
Boseman’s next high profile release was his portrayal as the “Godfather of Soul”, James Brown, in Get on Up (2014). Despite the rest of the film not being up to scratch, it brought a different side to Boseman’s acting that showcased his physicality and infectious energy as he inhabits Brown’s vigorous but flawed personality. Like Robinson, Brown was another black pioneering figure who left a sizeable impact that can be felt today and likewise, Boseman also strived to leave his own footprints in film history.
His moment finally arrived in the role of T’Challa, or otherwise known as the Black Panther, within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although he had supporting roles in Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers two-parter, Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019), it will be his own movie Black Panther that suddenly transcended him from a promising young actor into a worldwide cultural icon. The blockbuster was a significant milestone and a watershed moment for Hollywood in the wake of #OscarSoWhite and the Black Lives Matter movement: it had a predominantly black cast featured highly regarded actors including Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira. It was also helmed by an ethnically diverse film crew helmed by director Ryan Coogler, production designer Hannah Beachler, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, the latter two becoming the first African-Americans to win an Oscar in both their categories.
But it’s Chadwick Boseman who holds the film together in a performance that summed up his entire filmography: brave, fierce, charismatic, humorous, warm, and defiant. He understood the seismic wave that the film would muster if he got it right, which he did and T’Challa is now recognised as an inspirational figure to a new generation of fans and an entire community, something that Christian Bale’s Batman and Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man could never achieve.
Using his newfound fame and influence, Boseman took his first co-producer credit and starred in the action thriller 21 Bridges, centred around an NYPD detective who shuts down the eponymous 21 bridges of Manhattan in order to find two suspected murderers. Despite the film not being a box office success, it showed that Boseman had a keen interest in film production and wasn’t afraid to delve into roles he wasn’t normally akin to. During the final months of his life he used social media to enact as a firm voice for the Black Lives Matter marches that took place this past summer, as well as endorsing campaigns for shipping essential equipment towards front-line workers from ethnic minority backgrounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. His most recent film role was in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods as the deceased squad leader Norman, who his four comrades return to Vietnam to mourn for him 50 years later, now assumes a new poignancy – he possessed wise eyes in a young man’s body and it reflected through his ghostly yet powerful performance. His final outing will be in the upcoming adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
It’s an awful blow to hear the passing of such a young actor brimming with potential that we will never be able to see reach fruition; but in the short space of seven years, Boseman entered the film industry as an unknown and left it as a game-changer. If it wasn’t for his perseverance, we possibly would have to wait for John David Washington leading a Christopher Nolan blockbuster like Tenet, or Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith co-starring in a crime thriller like Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim. Thankfully we don’t have to and because of that, Boseman will always be remembered as a cinematic legend.