Chadwick Boseman was more than just an actor. When he died in August at the young age of 43, it felt like the world had lost not only one of the most outstanding cinematic talents of his era, but also a brother, and a friend. An emotional tribute from Black Panther co-star Lupita Nyong’o gave us a glimpse into just what it was that made Boseman so lovable, his spirit so much larger than life. “You got the sense that he was fully present and also somehow fully aware of things in the distant future,” she wrote. “He was absorbent. Agile. He set the bar high by working with a generosity of spirit, creating an ego-free environment by sheer example, and he always had a warm gaze and a strong embrace to share.”
And it was that same generosity of spirit that shined through in what would be his final film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Featuring Academy award-winner Viola Davis as the legendary “Mother of the Blues”, the film is focused on a single, seemingly interminable recording session as tensions rise between Rainey, her white record producers and her band – which included her ambitious horn player Levee, played by Boseman.
The film, released on Netflix on 18 December, is already considered by many to be his greatest performance. According to Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper, “this work stands on its own as the best of Boseman’s career and one of the most transcendent performances of the year.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the final act in a career marked by grace, charisma and raw, undeniable talent. But unlike the characters in this last film, Boseman was far more appreciated by colleagues, bosses and his community.
So much so that Marvel Studios (after much public speculation) announced that in the upcoming Black Panther sequel, set for release in July 2022, Boseman’s character, King T’Challa, would not be played by another actor. “He was our T’Challa, our Black Panther and our dear friend,” Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, said in a statement. “He embodied a lot of amazing people in his work, and nobody was better at bringing great men to life. He was as smart and kind and powerful and strong as any person he portrayed. Now he takes his place alongside them as an icon for the ages.” Instead, Marvel says, the film will pay tribute to both him and his character.
Boseman brought depth and an almost palpable empathy to the characters he played on screen. And if there was anyone who could carry the emotional heft of a culturally significant story, it was him. I’m reminded of his 2014 performance as funk legend James Brown in the star-studded biopic Get on Up. In it, he depicted Brown’s complicated life with the same easy charm that he seemed to constantly move through the world with.
Yet, as he skillfully navigated the most defining moment of his career, we now know that Boseman was also struggling with colon cancer. And aside from the fact that no one knew he was dying, his sudden passing was particularly painful for the Black community for a number of reasons. After a summer of protests against police brutality set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, Boseman’s death also marked the unexpected departure of yet another young, beloved Black celebrity. It’s also not lost on me that he died of colon cancer, an illness that disproportionately affects Black Americans.
But regardless of who he was on screen, Chadwick Boseman meant more to people than just the roles he played. I still tear up every time I watch that epic scene on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon when he surprised Black Panther fans with an unexpected meet-and-greet. It was a moment that reflected the spirit of not just who he was, but what he meant to so many. Black people of all ages lined up to tell him what he and the story of the Black Panther meant to them. Still, it wasn’t just about the film; it was how they connected to him as Black men, as parents, as fellow alumni of historically Black colleges and universities, and as a part of a community that had never, up until that point, seen their stories told in that way.
And even though we lost him way too soon, I’m comforted that the world will always have a piece of Chadwick Boseman through his cinematic legacy. As a fan on Fallon put it: “Thank you for being the hero that we really needed, in a time like this.”