Sunday 30 August 2020

In memoriam: Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020)

Chadwick Boseman, who has died aged 43, was a thoughtful, charismatic actor who achieved overnight superstardom via his role as T’Challa in Black Panther (2018), a comic-book blockbuster that achieved uncommon cultural reach and impact.

In part, the film was conceived as a corrective to previous, predominantly Caucasian superhero narratives: it transported cinemagoers to Wakanda, a fictional, Brigadoon-like African enclave that had survived uncolonised, and thus grown rich in natural resources. In Boseman, director Ryan Coogler found an ideal figurehead. Tall and athletic yet stately in his bearing, the actor made T’Challa equal parts scholar and warrior, carrying the weight of a people on his shoulders – a burden only sporadically lifted amid the film’s frenetic action scenes.

Such spectacle helped make Black Panther an immediate hit – it grossed over $1 billion at the international box office – yet the film also earned seven Oscar nominations (winning three), and Boseman won both People’s Choice and NAACP awards for his performance.

The actor remained acutely aware of what T’Challa and Wakanda represented to millions across the globe, as his acceptance speech at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild awards underlined. “All of us up here know what it’s like to be told there is not a place for you to be featured, yet you are young, gifted and black," he said. “We know what it’s like to be told there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, nor a stage for you to be featured on. We know what it’s like to be the tail and not the head, to be beneath and not above. That is what we went to work with every day."

Beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Boseman drew acclaim for his performances in three diverse studies of groundbreaking African-Americans. In the handsome 42 (2013), he nimbly embodied Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in major-league baseball. Boseman then reinvented himself for the skittering musical biopic Get On Up (2014): too upright to resemble James Brown, he nonetheless approximated the singer’s unique sound, keeping up a rich flow of self-aggrandising patter.

Marshall (2017) found Boseman on more restrained form, playing the young Thurgood Marshall, the first Black judge on the U.S. Supreme Court. A keen student of African-American history, Boseman brought a heightened sense of responsibility to such parts, telling an interviewer at the time of 42: “[Robinson] started something – I would even say maybe he didn’t even start it, it started before him. But he carried the torch. And he carried it alone for a period of time before other people could help him.”

He was born Chadwick Aaron Boseman in Anderson, South Carolina on November 29, 1976, the son of upholsterer Leroy Boseman and his wife Carolyn (née Mattress), a nurse. He studied at TL Hanna High School, where he wrote a play, Crossroads, about the shooting of a classmate, and then attended Howard University in Washington, where he majored in directing.

One of his mentors there was the erstwhile Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad, who raised funds from fellow performers – including Denzel Washington – to send Boseman and several classmates to attend the British American Drama Academy’s midsummer acting program in Oxford in 1998. (Washington joked on a recent chat show that he was awaiting repayment: “Sure, yeah, Wakanda forever, but where’s my money?”)

Ian Wooldridge, the Academy’s former dean, remembers Boseman as “diligent, enthusiastic, with a great wit; generous and a joy to work with in the room. He was always smiling. He had a tremendous relationship with language and text. He knew how to use it and relish it… He was special.”

Upon returning to America, Boseman enrolled at New York’s Digital Film Academy, and began pursuing acting work. He was set to make his screen debut on long-running soap All My Children in 2003, but was fired after objecting to racist material; Boseman’s Black Panther co-star Michael B. Jordan was recast in the role.

His actual debut followed later that year on the procedural drama Third Watch, followed by parts in Law & Order (in 2004), CSI: NY (2006) and e.r. (2008). He made his big-screen debut in the American football drama The Express (2008), appearing in the Kevin Costner gridiron drama Draft Day (2014) and as the Egyptian deity Thoth in the flop Gods of Egypt (2016), before making his first appearance as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War (2016). (The character recurred in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers:Endgame (2019).)

He lent heft to the middling detective thriller 21 Bridges (2019) and was a haunting presence amid the Vietnam scenes of Spike Lee’s Netflix-bound Da 5 Bloods (2020); his final film, an adaptation of August Wilson’s stage success Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, will appear on the streaming platform later this year.

He directed two shorts, Blood Over a Broken Pawn (2008) and Heaven (2012), and saw his play Deep Azure nominated for the Joseph Jefferson Award for New Work in 2006. “I started out as a writer and a director,” he told one interviewer. “I started acting because I wanted to know how to relate to the actors.”

Diagnosed with stage-three colon cancer in 2016, he is survived by a wife, the singer Taylor Simone Ledward, whom he married in late 2019.

Chadwick Boseman, born November 29, 1976, died August 28, 2020.

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