The king is gone.
It was near 11 Friday night when I first saw the news that Chadwick Boseman, age 43, has died. I saw the headline and thought, “This is a joke, right?” I typed his name into Google – all the stories said the same thing. Variety’s obit stared back at me, and the truck hit the wall.
Not now. Not this week, not this year. Another well of doom, another bright light snuffed out, another moment of sadness in a year marked by death, devastation and uncertainty.
For Black people in America and around the world, we’re dealing with a pandemic hitting us disproportionately because of racism and colonialism. During that fight, a renewed struggle against police brutality emerged after the death of George Floyd, and a sustained push to turn this moment into a reckoning on racism. Breonna Taylor’s killers remain free and uncharged, more deaths have occurred with people such as Tony McDade and Elijah McClain.
Then the fever reached a new heat on Sunday, Aug. 23, when Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wis. The cycle of bereavement – the fatigue, anguish, numbness and despair – felt familiar and remained raw. Change can’t come soon enough. We’re still in the dark.
So, then, another gut punch: on this week of all weeks, Chadwick Boseman, the king, is gone.
Chadwick Boseman drew international acclaim bringing T’Challa, the Black Panther, to the movie screen. Black Panther arrived in theaters in 2018 as the first Black-centered, major superhero picture of the MCU blockbuster era and introduced the Afro-futurist paradise of Wakanda to every corner of the world. Boseman’s illustrious career and artistic legacy was solidified.
Director Ryan Coogler made the first true masterpiece of the Marvel movies, an action blockbuster that accomplished great art that breathes well outside the genre of great superhero stories. It wasn’t only the end of a long wait for a big-time superhero movie with a nearly all-Black cast, though. Black Panther debated many larger questions in the African diaspora about identity, memory, legacy, gender. It wrestled with the marks white supremacy has left on Black nations and souls, and that even the mythic ideal of a Black nation untouched by white hands cannot live untainted.
And, amid all the excitement, bombast and soul searching, Chadwick Boseman stood as the dignified, still, and mighty King T’Challa in a way that was as cool and compelling as any of the great visuals and other wonderful performances.
For that was Chadwick’s greatest acting gift. Somehow he made dignity cool. He drew it into his body, an instrument that was 6 feet tall and slimly muscled, with expressive eyes that glowed. How else could such an actor have played so many figures of Black American male greatness, from the quiet determination of Jackie Robinson (42) to the fiery intellect of Thurgood Marshall (Marshall) to the profane abusiveness of James Brown (Get On Up), in the five short years of 2013 to 2017?
When Chadwick was named to play T’Challa, by that point it was almost a joke. He’d played so many real-life Black American icons. Couldn’t Hollywood think of anyone else?
Did Boseman, whose big success came in his 30s, relatively late for many actors, have to add the top Black male superhero to the pile? There wasn’t anyone else who also could share in this success? Perhaps a lesser known Black actor whose name could be rocketed to the top of the world?
But even those larger questions about the industry couldn’t hold much water when you saw Chadwick perform. It had to be Chadwick, the actor who radiated Black dignity and excellence, and who took a playful yet serious delight and joy in representing Black people through art.
Long have we presumed that the personal character of the actor resides somewhere within whatever iconic roles they play. It’s been no different with live-action superhero actors, where typecasting issues historically involved some of that. However, we often need the reassurance that the actor is somewhat like that unadulterated pureheart hero. The TV show or movie demands the audience to equate their face with righteousness, equity, kindness and power.
Even during these 20 years of antiheroes taking over prestige fiction, we recognize when that pureheart hero shows up. Would we buy Captain America in the MCU if Chris Evans didn’t behave in ways that allow us to hold him in similar esteem to Cap? Isn’t that why Hartley Sawyer couldn’t continue as Ralph Dibney/Elongated Man on The Flash once those horribly sexist, racist old tweet jokes resurfaced?
Our affection for Lynda Carter endures, in part, because of her real-life work for equality that Wonder Woman would champion. Meanwhile, Dean Cain’s anti-refugee stances run counter to his fame playing Superman, a refugee himself, and his standing is further diminished for it. Appreciation of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley continue amid public faith in the people Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have grown up to be, while J.K. Rowling’s reputation continues to tank amid her bigotry against transgender people.
Chadwick became a king to us, but especially to Black people.
As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country and around the world, don’t be surprised if you see the Wakanda salute, similar to how it cropped up with Black athletes around the world.
It’s because Wakanda, the fictional place in a comic book, speaks to them as it did to me when I started reading Black Panther comics 20 years ago: the myth of a Black people untouched by white supremacy always, and what we could have been had our riches not been stolen.
The movie owes much to what Black writers Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin had built after Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Don McGregor. But the movie made Wakanda such a real place.
Wakanda, in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, became Camelot. T’Challa, then, became Arthur. And Chadwick became T’Challa.
If only Chadwick, like Arthurian legend, has not merely died. If Wakanda can be the African diaspora’s Camelot, then we must have an Avalon. If only, just beyond the mists of any water, there be an island of power, a distant shore where Chadwick Boseman lay encased in crystal and amber.
As the being we knew as Chadwick travels to other dimensions, could his preserved and pristine body wait for the day that he must return to this world, dressed in power and glory?
But that was the glory of Chadwick Boseman, was it not, to want to believe that can be true?
Very few people wear dignity so well. Fewer still make our myths – whether from prehistory, or the confines of a Marvel Comic – feel so real.