The image that keeps replaying in my head since the death of Chadwick Boseman is from early 2018. It was just days before “Black Panther” would open in theaters and the exhilaration aroused by this long-in-coming cultural event was everywhere around Boseman. Flocked by fans, he repeatedly paused for pictures until he was handed a months-old Black child whom he gently held, beaming.
Boseman’s family said that the actor, who died Friday at the age of 43, was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. Did he know when he held that baby that he might not live long enough to see a child of his own raised? Did he know that in playing Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa — in so gracefully filling the screen with the dignity of Black lives — that he was helping to cradle another generation?
In a tragically brief but historically sweeping life as an actor, Boseman played men of public life and private pain. Before Friday, we didn’t know he, too, was bearing such a burden. That has only magnified his accomplishment, bringing him closer to the great figures whose shoes he wore on film. He played men who advanced a people’s progress, a trail he helped blaze himself. He played icons, and died one, too.
“There’s a lot to learn from Jackie Robinson. There’s a lot to learn from James Brown. There’s a lot to learn from Thurgood Marshall,” Boseman said that day two and a half years ago. “I would like to say that some of those qualities have infused themselves into me at this point.”
Boseman started out as a playwright. He was raised in the manufacturing town of Anderson, South Carolina, the youngest of three boys. As a junior in high school, he wrote and staged a play inspired by the shooting death of a basketball teammate. Before he was a Hollywood star, he penned numerous hip-hop-infused plays: “Hieroglyphic Graffiti,” “Rhyme Deferred,” “Deep Azure” — and directed others. In New York, he performed with the National Shakespeare Company.
He compared his alma mater, Howard University, to his own personal Wakanda.
“If you have a blanketed idea of what it means to be of African descent and you go to Howard University, you’re meeting people from all over the diaspora — from the Caribbean, any country in Africa, in Europe,” Boseman said. “So you’re seeing people from all walks of life that look like you but they sound different.”
That early development of an expansive, historical understanding of African American identity surely fed the grace and humility of Boseman's most famous roles. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-30s, after a handful of brief television appearances, that he landed his first leading role as Robinson in “42.” He was, from the start, a self-evident movie star with a rare, effortless charisma. Rachel Robinson, the Hall of Famer’s widow, said it was like seeing her husband again.