Mourning a celebrity is, I think, an inherently selfish act. We’re not grieving who they were — we never got close enough to find out — but rather what they meant to us and to our friends and to the culture and times in which they flourished.
This is what makes the death of Chadwick Boseman feel doubly cruel: It felt like he was still in the process of getting started. Yes, he was 43 — and had been battling colon cancer in private since he was 39 — but his ascension to movie stardom was both abetted and stymied by the three biopics in which he came to public attention: As baseball legend Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013); as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in “Get on Up” (2014); and as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” (2017).
They’re all sturdy, engaging life stories — and “Get On Up” is better than that, a portrait of a dynamo in full roar — but they also blurred the question of who Chadwick Boseman was or wanted to be. He was an actor, of course, and all actors squirrel themselves behind their roles; that’s the job. But the great ones have a sparkle, a charisma, a persona, that make them unique on the public stage. Boseman had it, you could tell. It just had to take a back seat to whichever historical personage he was playing at the time. That was the job, and he was terrific at it. But there was also the sense that Hollywood was painting him into a corner.
Then came “Black Panther” (2018), and by donning the spandex uniform and mythic Marvel mantle of T’Challa, King of Wakanda, Boseman paradoxically stood revealed as a majestic star in his own right. With his soulful eyes and proud bearing — a seriousness that in part came from his familiarity with larger-than-life characters but that by now seemed inborn — the actor seemed exactly the right size for both the movie and its greater meaning as a celebratory Black superhero event and American paradigm shift. Writer Tracy Deonn shared on Twitter a memory of how she took her 72-year-old father, a survivor of the Jim Crow South, to see “Black Panther,” and how he turned to her at the end and said, “I never thought they’d put us onscreen like that.” That was the power of which Chadwick Boseman was capable.
In the wake of “Black Panther,” he finally seemed freed to make his own choices, his own career. We were just beginning to see the fruits: A simmering action hero in “21 Bridges” — an A-level talent trying on B-movie clothes — and the ferocious, unyielding platoon leader in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” this summer: another larger-than-life part. Boseman’s final film has yet to be released: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a Netflix adaptation of the classic August Wilson play that stars Viola Davis and is directed by George C. Wolfe. Whenever it airs, it stands to be a communal wake.
As news of the actor’s death fanned out across social media Friday night and into the weekend, you could almost see the online ripples of shock, sorrow, and even anger. We were just starting to know him! Enough, 2020! The roles Boseman will never get to play seemed briefly to eclipse the ones he did. There are deaths that make us feel robbed of not just the work that will never be but of the unique presence that animated them. Heath Ledger. Selena. Otis Redding. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Boseman’s filmography was small but mighty, and his importance in the culture — because of the biopics, because of T’Challa — was mightier still. That he died at a time when this country appears to be coming further apart at the seams over race and racism is somehow meaningful, as if this were one more stone on our heart and yet an occasion for common sorrow. His death fell on Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech and Major League Baseball’s COVID-postponed Jackie Robinson Day. Both touchstones feel appropriate.
Here’s who Chadwick Boseman was: a son of South Carolina, whose mother was a nurse, whose father worked in a textile factory, and who grew up to play kings. In interviews he recounted being run off the road by good old boys as the price of being Black in the South. When he was in high school, a kid on his basketball team was shot and killed; Boseman wrote and staged a play in response. He studied directing at Howard University — another part of the man we’ll never see — and took acting classes under Phylicia Rashad. “What I saw in him was the sky was the limit,” she later told Rolling Stone.
He read widely and deeply, studied at Oxford, and moved to Brooklyn, where he wrote and directed productions in the hip-hop theater scene that nurtured people like Lin-Manuel Miranda. He started getting small roles on East Coast cop shows. Then came “42” and “Get on Up.” For “Black Panther,” Boseman took a DNA test that revealed his ethnic ancestry as Yoruban, Mende, and Jola. He traced his American roots as far as he could, telling Rolling Stone that to go any further, “I’d have to go to property records.” Late last year, he married his longtime girlfriend, singer Taylor Simone Ledward. She and his family were reportedly with him when he died.
Does that fill in the gaps and make us feel as if we “knew” him? Of course not. You’d get a better idea of who Chadwick Boseman was by rewatching his 2018 guest-host stint on “Saturday Night Live,” where his opening monologue and skits like “Black Jeopardy” gave evidence of a wicked sense of humor he’d yet to tap onscreen. But you know that sooner or later he would have. You know he could have done anything — comedies, romances, dramas, indie films, blockbusters — and in the doing meant so much to so many. And now he won’t. And it’s not fair.