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Chadwick Boseman (1976 – 2020): An immortal who belongs to the ages

By Sam Mathe 8 September 2020

epa06506261 US actor/cast member Chadwick Boseman arrives for the European premiere of 'Black Panther' at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, Britain, 08 February 2018. The latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be released in UK cinemas on 12 February. EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER

Chadwick Boseman’s place in movie history as the king of the biopic genre began in 2013 following the release of 42, a sports film based on the life and times of Jackie Robinson in which he played a lead role, but there’s more to what they share.

Chadwick Boseman (43) passed away on Jackie Robinson Day. Traditionally held every year on 15 April since 2004, its purpose is to celebrate the day the baseball legend made his debut in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. As the first black professional baseball player in the team, it was a groundbreaking achievement that effectively ended 80 years of baseball segregation or colour barrier in the United States. Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award that season at 28, and went on to garner more accolades until his retirement in 1956. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and died in 1972.

During a 1963 interview on the Dick Cavett Show he recalled how he had to deal with racial slurs even from teammates. He also recalled incidents when he was made to wait in the bus for sandwiches while his white teammates were enjoying their lunch in restaurants. However, his ability on the field of play and courage in the face of racial hostilities would play a significant role in changing white attitudes towards African Americans. An all-round athlete in the early years, Robinson’s heroic exploits with the bat made him one of the most celebrated sportsmen in history, alongside the likes of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.

Due to Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown regulations, this year Jackie Robinson Day was celebrated on 28 August, the day the Black Panther star succumbed to colon cancer. It’s a symbolic coincidence that marks a meteoric career which has swung full circle, albeit too soon. 

Boseman’s place in movie history as the king of the biopic genre began in 2013 following the release of 42, a sports film based on the life and times of Jackie Robinson in which he played a lead role. It was a brilliant performance and an exceptional box office success for a newcomer in lead roles. Created on a $40-million budget, it grossed $97-million and enjoyed lavish praise from critics.

The seed was planted in 2008 when Boseman landed a small role as American football player, Floyd Little in The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. Starring Rob Brown, the biopic is based on the life and times of American football player, Ernie Davis and explores white America’s racism during the Jim Crow and civil rights years. Notable African American actors like Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx and Angela Bassett have memorably starred in movies that relate the black experience through their portrayal of influential historical figures. And there’s no doubt about their virtuosic performances in this regard.

But despite his youth, Boseman is the one who will go down in history as the king of biographical movies until another contender comes along in another lifetime. He was cast to play roles that could be regarded as intimidating and demanding in their scope and complexity, and he was able to rise to the occasion when the situation dictated. His strength in this regard was that he was a transformative performer. Through his convincing portrayals he brought back to life these black cultural icons. He reincarnated them. Jamie Foxx received adulation for Ray precisely because of such a transformative performance. 

After 42, Boseman achieved a similar feat with Get On Up (2014), based on the life and times of James Brown. Consensus among critics was that the execution was ‘a fittingly dynamic homage’ to the godfather of soul. But perhaps the best accolade for the actor came from a member of the Brown family. Deanna Brown Thomas, daughter of the late musician and performer praised Boseman for what she regarded as an authentic depiction of her father’s life. “He wasn’t Hollywood and I loved that about him,” she told mourners at Boseman’s memorial service at his hometown in Anderson, South Carolina.

“He understood the importance of the role, took everything we told him and used it in the film – right down to the way James Brown walked. He told my son, ‘this is your family’s history, this is important to your family and its future. So we gotta get this right. We gotta put as much truth to this as we can’. And he did that. And he did it at an excellent level because to me he is the epitome of black excellence.” Boseman reportedly worked five hours a day and five days a week as part of the rehearsals for the James Brown role. 

This level of excellence is undoubtedly also evident in 42, one of the most powerful stories ever told about racism in America and sport’s redemptive qualities in this regard. It’s a tale of triumph against racial bigotry even as racism persists. The title refers to the iconic number on Jackie Robinson’s jersey, which was retired across all major league teams in 1997 as a sign of respect for the late baseball star although part of the tradition on Jackie Robinson Day is that all players wear number 42. 

Thurgood Marshall was another archetypal African American historical character who lived through the civil rights period and left a huge imprint as a political activist who fought racial injustice using the legal system as his weapon. As a hotshot human rights lawyer working with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), he was involved in a number of celebrated cases, notably Murray vs Pearson (1936), Shelley vs Kraemer (1948) and Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In all of them he successfully challenged the segregation laws in housing and the education system. He apparently won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.

Marshall (2017) is a courtroom thriller based on the case of Joseph Spell, an African American chauffeur with a criminal past who was accused of raping his boss, a white woman and wealthy socialite named Eleanor Strubing. During the sensational trial that followed in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1940, Spell denied the rape accusation and confessed to have had consensual sex with Strubing. Asked why he didn’t tell the police about the intimate relationship, Spell explained that in his state a romantic relationship with a white woman meant a death penalty by the lynch mob. Marshall represented the accused who was acquitted by a jury after his accuser was exposed to be an unreliable witness.     

Boseman had indicated that he was not looking for another role in a biographical movie, but after researching the character, he knew he wanted to play the part of this larger-than-life civil rights lawyer. “I didn’t know much about him before, but I was instantly attracted to the character because of the opportunity for the suspense in the storyline. I discovered that he was the best show in town because of the theatricality he put in his cases,” he told Ricky Camilleri, host of HuffPost Live. “He was the life of the party, went to dangerous places and had a swagger about him. So I thought it would be cool to play a character like that.”

Boseman added that he was also intrigued by Marshall’s tongue-in-cheek humour, a quality he shared. And like the legendary lawman, Boseman also studied at Howard University, a historically black university that opened its doors in 1867 and played a significant role in the higher education of a first generation of former slaves. Born in 1908 in Maryland, Baltimore, Marshall graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1933 and was later appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1967 to 1991. In the ’30s and ’40s he lived in Harlem, decades that witnessed the flowering of black arts and literature known as the Harlem Renaissance. 

The movie is essentially a period drama. The theme music in the form of swing and early bebop as interpreted by Marcus Miller and Wynton Marsalis lends cultural credence to the era. The overall performance by the cast is simply brilliant and Boseman’s portrayal of the swashbuckling character – with the necessary flamboyance and gravitas that befit his significance as a historical figure – inspired awe, respect and admiration. His brilliant and authoritative portrayal suggests he has put a lot of research and work into the role, and he managed to capture the essence of the man and his times.

To paraphrase his Marshall co-star Josh Gad, in the same Camilleri interview, the film is about superheroes in suits with ties fighting the anti-heroes of racial violence. And there’s a fair share of the latter, such as the three white men at the train station. They are armed to the teeth with hunting rifles except that their quarry is not deer but black people. It’s a particularly dangerous world if one’s name is Thurgood Marshall and his mission in life is to seek justice for black men in American courts. While Marshall is a historical movie, it is also one that resonates with contemporary America – a country that has scrapped racism from the statute books decades ago but still bears it in the hearts of some of its white population. It is a country that’s still grappling with race and racial violence against minorities, particularly African Americans.                              

While all these movies have certainly placed Boseman in the league of great film stars in cinematic history, Black Panther would prove to be an extraordinary crowning achievement personally and for the superhero genre. It certainly created international awareness of his existence, even among those who are not necessarily interested in movies. The hype about such a monumental project was hard to ignore. This was a movie that sold itself weeks before its world premiere at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on 18 January 2018, and when it opened at cinemas worldwide, movie goers voted for its success with their tickets.

According to Box Office Mojo, a US site that tracks box office revenue, Black Panther grossed $700.1million in the United States and Canada and $646.9million in other parts of the Americas and the Caribbean, with a global total of $1.347billion to become the highest grossing superhero film in the history of cinema. It also became the highest-grossing film by a black director and black lead. It has also become one of the most discussed films on social media and undoubtedly a game changer in the industry. Boseman has also portrayed T’Challa (Black Panther) in cameo or minor roles in other Marvel Cinematic Universe films Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: End Game (2019).

However, there’s consensus among industry insiders that Black Panther is the best of them all – a cultural touchstone and cult movie for the current generation of comic fans. In South Africa the film was greeted with a combination of pride and disappointment. Black movie commentators in particular expressed a sense of pride in the fact that the movie was inspired by African culture although they indicated reservations about what they regarded as awful accents. The Xhosa language is sampled as part of the dialogue and there seemed to be consensus among mother tongue speakers that more effort could have been made to get pronunciation to an acceptable standard, especially given the fact that the film’s most experienced cast member, John Kani is an isiXhosa speaker who could have played a more effective role in this regard as a language coach.

Kani portrays T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa and his successor as the king of Wakanda – the mythical sub-Saharan African country. His son, Atandwa Kani, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Chadwick, plays the younger version of the king. It’s easy to fault the protagonist and other characters’ faux-African accents, but it’s forgivable when one considers the fact that the setting is a fictional country that doesn’t portray a real or specific nation on the continent. And I’m sure that those who have heard Sidney Poitier’s accent in Mandela and De Klerk (1997) would readily pardon Boseman.

Unlike Boseman, Poitier was portraying a historical figure. All things considered, this is a movie that affirms historical ties between continental and diasporan Africans. It also underscores the significance of cultural identity particularly among the descendants of slaves whose cultural origins were destroyed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For Boseman, an unapologetic admirer of black icons that include Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and Dr King, this role was a wonderful opportunity to showcase his African heritage.     

Following his passing, producer, writer, actor and friend, Logan Coles remembered how they met at Howard University in the mid-’90s where the deceased graduated in bachelor of fine arts in directing in 2000. One of his drama teachers was Phylicia Rashad of the Cosby Show fame. According to Rashad he was a special student and she was determined to see him scale the heights of his chosen profession. So when he couldn’t afford to pay for a drama programme in the UK, she raised funds from colleagues like Denzel Washington. Coles and Boseman went on to work together on films like Message From The King (2016) and 21 Bridges (2019), showing unwavering commitment to telling stories about the black experience. 

One of his earlier credits included a role in All My Children, a popular soapie that was also screened in South Africa for many years. He was fired from the production after complaining about what he regarded as racially insensitive portrayal of the black character. “My friendship with Bose profoundly transformed my life,” Coles wrote. “I was a fan of his art and was inspired by his seemingly indefatigable work ethic even back then. He was like a mad scientist who had figured out how to fuse Nas with Shakespeare and spit it all over a smooth J Dilla beat. It was hip hop theatre perfection.”

It’s thanks to his exceptionally industrious nature that he has co-created all these wonderful film productions. But it is more remarkable that he achieved these career defining, epic works while he was in serious pain because of cancer. He kept his condition private and focused on the job at hand. An ordinary mortal would have lessened the punishing work schedule. But he soldiered selflessly and stoically, including devoting some of his time to visiting and encouraging children with terminal ailments.

During interviews he struggled to compose himself as he recalled how it broke his heart that some of these children passed on before they could watch Black Panther. Some parents have reportedly been struggling to explain to their children about his demise. Perhaps they can find solace in the fact that although he won’t be able to sign their kids’ autographs he will continue to live in popular culture. He is now an immortal who belongs to the ages. DM/ML       

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