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Chadwick Boseman (1976–2020)

More than any other actor of his era, Chadwick Boseman, who played a range of black heroes from Thurgood Marshall to T'Challa, had a capacity to inspire his audience and evoke a sense of pride in the triumphs and struggles of black people.

Chadwick Boseman attends the European Premiere of Black Panther on February 8, 2018 in London, England. (Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images)

When Chadwick Boseman died on August 28, at age forty-three, after suffering from colon cancer for four years without disclosing it publicly, everyone seemed to have the same initial reactions: “He was so young!” and “It’s incredible he could’ve given those performances while suffering from cancer!”

Since 2016, Boseman played, among other roles, the demanding part of Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017); the role that vaulted him to international stardom, T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda in Black Panther (2018); and the male lead opposite Viola Davis in the completed but not yet released film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Immediately before that, he played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) and James Brown in Get on Up (2014). He looked remarkably athletic even by Hollywood standards of muscle definition for male stars.

Boseman’s decision to keep his illness completely private was both brave and practical, in a climb to stardom built on playing heroic fictional characters as well as justly legendary historical figures who achieved extraordinary things in grim circumstances. As Spike Lee put it when casting Boseman as the admired squad leader Stormin’ Norman in his Vietnam film Da 5 Bloods (2020),

Here’s the thing for me. This character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa!

The public never suspected he was ill until a few months before his death, when Boseman released an Instagram video and fans expressed their concern at how thin he looked. Many asked, “Are you okay?” and others wondered if his extreme weight loss was part of his preparation for a film role. Boseman had been advocating for a cause, which the caption accompanying the video made clear:

I am hearing stories of desperation from people all over the country, and we know our communities are suffering the most and urgently need help. Celebrating #JackieRobinsonDay with the launch of Thomas Tull’s #Operation42, a donation of $4.2 million in personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals that service the African American Communities who have been hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thank you, Jackie, for refusing to accept the world as it is, for showing us that we can make a difference.

Since Boseman’s death, the tributes have flooded in. Record-breaking numbers of people took to social media to express their shock and sorrow, including parents with photos of their children holding impromptu funerals for Black Panther with their Marvel action figures standing in solemn rings around the fallen hero.

Actors Phylicia Rashad, who mentored Boseman at Howard University, and Denzel Washington recounted the story of Washington funding the “brilliant” Chadwick Boseman, one of several of Rashad’s students who’d been accepted to the British American Drama Academy’s midsummer program but couldn’t afford to attend without Washington’s support. Barack and Michelle Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden sang Boseman’s praises.

Ryan Coogler, who directed Boseman in Black Panther and had no idea he was ill, discussed how impressed he was by Boseman’s insistence that T’Challa’s native language be Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa. Even Boseman’s insistence on all Wakandans speaking in an accent based on the Xhosa language got a certain amount of pushback from Marvel executives, who worried that audiences might not be able to take it if the accents weren’t British or American.

“I said that would not be fine because if we did that, that would be saying that [Wakandans] had been colonized,” [Boseman] said.

But the most moving tribute comes from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, because he names, in his straightforward way, the most poignant aspect of Boseman’s life and death — his impact on black Americans:

Boseman consistently played characters that gave the Black community pride and hope. We came out of his movies with straighter spines and wider smiles. We would look at each other and nod, feeling like we were part of something bigger than ourselves, something that went back generations to a whole different continent. We saw a whole history of our people’s struggles and triumphs shining in the bright eyes of one indomitable man.