' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Chadwick Boseman

Monday, August 31, 2020

In Memoriam: Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman died on Friday August 28 at the age of 43. To us, the general public, this was shocking, sudden. To Boseman, though, one can only assume it was anything but. He was, as his Instagram page reported to the whole world on Friday night for the first time, diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer in 2016. Prior to 2020, it advanced to Stage IV. That he kept this private was, not just on a physical level but a practical one, nothing short of amazing, if not admirable. And that during treatment, including surgery and chemotherapy, he still made multiple movies is astounding. Given that he famously portrayed T’Challa, protector of the fictional African utopia Wakanda in 2018’s soaring success “Black Panther”, it might be tempting to deem Boseman a real life superhero. We like to think of us flawed humans in extraordinary terms. But I feel safe in saying that Boseman, dead from colon cancer at the age of 43, knew better than anyone how human he was.

Boseman had a working class upbringing and attended Howard University, hoping to become a film director, though one of his instructors, Phylicia Rashad, encouraged him to consider acting. As Mike Barnes and Aaron Couch of The Hollywood Reporter noted, she helped him raise money to attend the British American Drama Academy to study acting. “After he returned,” Barnes and Couch wrote, “he learned that it was Denzel Washington who had paid for his trip.” That is not to suggest Rashad and Washington ushered Boseman to stardom; Boseman worked at it, earning his way, toiling in TV and getting his break at the age of 36 by playing Jackie Robinson in “42.” But that story also positioned Boseman as something akin to the descendant of Black Acting Royalty.

“The crown didn’t weight on him.” That’s what Wesley Morris wrote of Boseman in regards to his turn as T’Challa but he may as well have been speaking of Boseman in general. “We should not confuse representation with political power,” Clint Smith wrote for the Paris Review regarding “Black Panther,” “nor should we discount it. I know that black people, black children in particular, from across the country, and the world, seeing themselves on-screen as characters who have never before been depicted in film will have an effect that cannot be quantified.” Boseman seemed to grasp this idea. (His last tweet, on August 11, which I suspect was very much a conscious choice, a way of positioning himself one last time in the world, was of him and Kamala Harris.) He played his role onscreen and played the role offscreen too.

Even upon being diagnosed with cancer, he picked up where he left off after playing Robinson and James Brown in “Get Up” (2015) by playing another great Black American, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Even in last year’s “21 Bridges”, nominally just a genre exercise, Boseman exuded consciousness of what it meant to be a Black cop. He seemed determined not to let Black people, Black children in particular down, to help them understand their (his) history, as Michele Norris summarized it for The Washington Post.

Boseman’s last role before his death was in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” There he played Stormin Norman, mentor to his Vietnam War African-American compatriots, “our Malcolm and Martin” as Delroy Lindo’s Paul explained. It might have been Boseman’s deftest performance to date. Glimpsed only in flashback, Boseman evinced the sense of how large someone can come to loom with the passage of time, how someone’s presence through memory can become heightened.

In one shot, the light softly settling on him through the trees, you can virtually see the moment where a mere mortal is elevated to a higher plane.

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