By Melvin Twigg Mason
In February of 2018, history was made. As my niece reminded me recently, “It seems like we just went to see ‘Black Panther’ [together]!” And now Chadwick Boseman, the actor who brought the titular superhero to life via the big screen, is gone. As news of his passing circulated in the media, I found myself mourning as if one of my own relatives had passed away. I also found myself contemplating the stellar body of work this relatively young actor had amassed in his seemingly brief career.
It was 2013 when Boseman, then 36 years old, burst onto the big screen with a critically-acclaimed performance as baseball legend Jackie Robinson. The biopic of Brooklyn Dodgers’ player number “42” portrayed the Hall-of-Famer’s arduous journey as the first black athlete to be signed with a major league baseball team. Boseman followed that up in 2014 with another biopic, “Get On Up,” this time dealing with the career highs and lows of 60s singer James Brown. A brief appearance in “Gods of Egypt” in 2016 was followed by another epic biopic, “Marshall.” This 2017 film dealt with the rise of attorney Thurgood Marshall and his adjudication of Brown vs the Board of Education in 1954, which found that segregated schools were unconstitutional. But then to continue his illustrious legacy of films, Boseman delivered in “Black Panther.” Portraying this fictional superhero, Boseman captured the hearts and imaginations of many Americans, especially African Americans. Through T’Challa, the prince of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, and his royal family, Black America could envision (perhaps for the first time in a long time!) who we could become: a people of wisdom and industry, of self-reliance and strength. Those kinds of images are not often found in Hollywood portrayals of black life and community in America.
Indeed, Boseman’s work may bring to remembrance another such impactful actor/icon. In his time, Sidney Poitier’s body of work has also been legendary and ground-breaking in scope and depth. It was unheard of in the ‘50s and ‘60s to see a “negro” in such roles as a no-nonsense homicide detective in the rural and racist South (In The Heat of the Night, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs), or an unwanted high school teacher becoming the most beloved educator in an all-white school (To Sir With Love), or a doctor who becomes the unexpected fiancé of a young caucasian socialite (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?) let alone for a black actor to receive awards and accolades for such performances. But this Best Actor Oscar winner and 3-time Golden Globe winner showed Black America (indeed, all Americans) what life might look like in a racially-healthier United States, with films like Lillies Of the Field (1963), Patch Of Blue (1965), and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967).
So too, Boseman’s work has embodied some ideals and non-typical images of black people that have made us proud, and given us an alternative visual of who we are, who we’ve been, and who we could become! Images like “The Express (2008),” a film about the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Or “Message From The King (2016),” portraying the response of a close-knit brother to the murder of his sister. [Interestingly, both Poitier and Boseman have taken their turn portraying (pre-Supreme Court) Thurgood Marshall.] And like Poitier, Boseman was becoming an articulate speaker and thought leader in the black community outside of Hollywood as well. His perspectives on black life and destiny were impressive. Just listening to his speeches at commencement ceremonies and award shows (that I found online) was inspiring.
So now, with his passing, the voice of such hopeful inspiration and vision has been halted…too soon, some might say. And for many of us, that hurts. Yet let us not just see the legacy of his celluloid artistry. Instead, continue to be reminded of the beauty and promise of Black America that he saw in his people, that he spoke of in his speeches, and that he presented in his work.