Chadwick Boseman Gave Us Something We Had Not Had Before

Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

What I’ll always remember about the first time I saw the film Black Panther are the costumes that people wore. It was a chilly night in Washington, D.C., and almost everyone in the theater was Black. Children dressed as Shuri, white dots of paint tracing the contours of their face, plastic Vibranium Gauntlets strapped to their arms. Boys and girls who’d gotten their hair cut into the quintessential style of Killmonger, black twists dangling at their temple. And there were, of course, those dressed as King T’Challa himself. People of every age and gender donned the black mask of the Black Panther, with its sharp, symmetrical silver lines; the hard-bodied top that enhanced the torso; the spiky necklace that gleamed under the light of the theater lobby. I remember how when people in costumes crossed paths with one another, they crossed their arms over their chest and said “Wakanda forever” with equal parts conviction and delight.

T’Challa as the Black Panther had existed as a comic-book superhero since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby conceived of him in 1966. But it was Chadwick Boseman who brought the fictional Wakandan monarch and superhero to the big screen, whose exceptional talent gave new life to the groundbreaking character and transfixed a global audience. Boseman’s steady disposition and even-temperedness filtered into the role of a king who was guided as much by his moral center as by his physical strength. It became difficult to see Boseman without thinking of the Black Panther, without wanting to thank him for giving us something we had not had before.

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That instinctive association is perhaps why Boseman’s death on Friday, following a four-year battle with colon cancer, struck me and so many others differently than other celebrity passings. The news sent almost every Black person I know into mourning. My social-media feeds filled up with images of Boseman’s face and the roles he’d played during his short, but rich, career.

This is not to say that the outpouring of grief has been specifically limited to Black people; part of what was so remarkable about the cinematic success of Black Panther was how widely it was watched around the world. Still, the film, and the characters within it, did feel uniquely ours. As such, Boseman’s death hits me hard. Part of it, I imagine, is that most people did not know he was sick. Part of it is that he was so young at 43, just getting started. But part of it is also that, in some way, he felt like our superhero. Amid a moment in which Black life feels particularly fragile, losing a Black superhero, even a fictional one, is especially destabilizing.

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther in Avengers: Infinity War  (Everett Collection)

When I heard of Boseman’s death, I thought of my grandfather, who passed away at age 73 with colon cancer and Alzheimer’s coursing through him, and about my 3-year-old son, who was born 11 years after my grandfather’s death but who shares his wide smile. I thought, too, about how my son wore his Black Panther costume, a gift he had received for his birthday, for days without taking it off. How the outfit’s thin layer of polyester began to smell of toddler, Cheerios, and the new sweat of early summer. How he walked around the house shouting “I am the Black Panther!” to no one in particular. How he thought that keeping his mask on and pretending to be the Wakandan superhero would mean that his parents would finally let him jump on the couch (he was mistaken). What I think of most is how happy it made him, how his small body moved with unbridled joy through our home as he showed us how high he could jump, how fast he could run.

My son has not yet watched Black Panther, though I have shown him some of its nonviolent scenes online. He has seen Boseman’s face behind the mask. I don’t know how significant it is to him to see a superhero who looks like him, or who looks like me, but I imagine one day it might be. Or perhaps it won’t be significant at all, because he will grow up in a world with more than a handful of Black superheroes to choose from. If I’m being honest, part of the significance of the film, and of seeing my son in that costume, is what it means to me.

Representation is not everything. I am acutely aware of its limits across American culture and politics. Representation will not prevent Black people from being killed by police. It will not reduce the racial wealth gap. It will not prevent Black people from being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. But neither is it nothing. As I wrote after watching Black Panther in 2018: “We should not confuse representation with political power, nor should we discount it.”

Boseman did his part to show us its power. He was Jackie Robinson, who endured slurs and abuse on and off the baseball diamond as the first Black player in Major League Baseball’s modern era. He was James Brown, sweat glistening from his face as the spotlight beamed down on him, his feet moving like lightning across the stage. He was a young Thurgood Marshall, wielding the weight of the law to move this country closer to the promises it had made but hadn’t kept. Most recently, he played Stormin’ Norman, a young squad leader in Vietnam brewing with frustration at how the United States asked Black folks to fight its wars but remained unwilling to let them have its rights.

I watched that last film several weeks ago, one of the many movies in my quarantine-era Netflix queue, and consider now how sick he must have been while making it. Da 5 Bloods’ director, Spike Lee, remembering Boseman and the 2019 filming of the production, said yesterday: “I never, ever suspected that anything was wrong. No one knew he was going through treatment.”

I think of all the roles Boseman has played over the past four years, in between chemotherapy and surgery. He must have been so exhausted. And yet, as Lee said, “He was there every single minute in the moment.” He portrayed with grace and mastery both the icons of our past and the superheroes who helped us imagine different futures. He gave us so much. And for that I am immensely grateful.