By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — There was immense grief and sadness nationwide on Friday, but there was substantially more in Black neighborhoods and homes as the world received the stunning news that the marvelous actor Chadwick Boseman had died at 43 of colon cancer. The shock became even more pronounced when more information revealed he’d been suffering from it for four years, and had been working some of his finest acting roles around chemotherapy sessions.
Boseman kept his condition such a secret even many considered his closest associates had no idea he was even ill, let alone suffering from colon cancer. While the mainstream media quickly began turning out salutes and testimonials, his comrades in the African-American acting and entertainment communities, as well the HBCU world that gave him his foundation and earliest training, struggled to deal with the fact a highly charismatic, extremely popular figure who hadn’t let global crossover success isolate or alienate him from Black America was gone.
Though Chadwick Boseman rose to fame through a combination of portraying iconic Black heroes and headlining the first superhero film with an African character as its centerpiece, he successfully navigated a long road of theatrical and television roles prior to hitting the jackpot with “Black Panther.”
The film “42,” that cast him as Jackie Robinson, represented a major breakthrough, and that was subsequently followed by portraying James Brown in “Get On Up” and Thurgood Marshall years before his appointment to the Supreme Court in “Marshall.”
Growing up in South Carolina, it was Howard University that got Boseman started on his way to fame. He earned a BA in directing there. That was followed by time spent studying at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England. Boseman appeared in several plays, among them “Breathe,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Bootleg Blues,” “Zooman,” and “Willie’s Cut and Shine.” He won an AUDELCO award for his role as the teen E.J. in Ron Milner’s 2002 play “Urban Transitions: Loose Blossoms.”
Later came more theatrical work plus television roles. Boseman penned the plays “Hieroglyphic Graffiti,” “Deep Azure” and “Rhyme Deferred” for the Hip Hop Theatre Festival. His first big TV stint came playing the head of a Black suburban family who relocates back to his boyhood urban neighborhood in “Lincoln Heights.”
The trio of biopics earned him plaudits, but global attention came via his definitive role as “T’Challa,” King of Wakanda aka The Black Panther.” From the time he initially became the character in the 2016 film “Captain America: Civil War,” Boseman brought Black dignity, integrity and power to the Marvel universe. It would take two more years, but “Black Panther” totally rocked the cinematic landscape in 2018 as a showcase for consummate Black excellence across the board. It subsequently became the first superhero hero film nominated for an Oscar.
Boseman continued as “T”Challa” in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers Endgame,” and later reteamed with “Avengers Endgame” directors Anthony and Joe Russo on “21 Bridges.” He worked with Spike Lee for the first (and now sadly the only time) on “Da 5 Bloods.”
Longtime friend and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler wrote in Variety, “I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness. After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us.”
Even in death, Boseman will have an impact. His loss is highlighting the disproportionate affect colon cancer has on Black men. Blacks have the highest rate of colon cancer of any racial or ethnic group in the country according to the American Cancer Society. Boseman visited young cancer patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital while fighting the disease.
Hopefully, a project announced last week that he was working on with Seth MacFarlane will happen. They were planning to jointly executive produce a limited series about the Little Rock Nine—the group of Black children who attended a formerly all-white high school in Arkansas in 1957 while the state violently fought the desegregation of schools.
The project was going to be based on a memoir by Little Rock Nine member Carlotta Walls LaNier titled “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey To Justice At Little Rock Central High.” LaNier was scheduled to be a consultant and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eisa Davis had been tabbed to write the script.
Seeing that project to completion would be a most fitting memorial to Chadwick Boseman.