Chadwick Boseman, the 43-year-old rising star of such films as “42,” “Get on Up,” and Marvel’s “Black Panther,” has died. The cause: colon cancer. The reaction: stunned silence.
The South Carolina-born Boseman, who leaves behind a wife but no children, was poised for superstardom. He headlined the highest-grossing film of 2018 (“Black Panther”) and played real life figures Jackie Robinson (“42”), James Brown “Get on Up,” and Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”).
You may have heard the story of how Boseman, while studying at Howard University under the mentorship of Phylicia Rashad, received an invite to participate in the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer program, only to reveal that he could not afford to go. Phone calls were made, and Boseman’s found himself among those invitees whose tuition was paid for…by none other than two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington.
Boseman has often been hailed as “the next Denzel.” For his range, who varies from quiet introspection at the end of “Black Panther,” to teeth-gritting determination against a racist sports establishment in “42,” to raging torrents of grief in what may be his least-seen film, “A Message from the King,” surely rivals Washington’s.
I haven’t seen all of Boseman’s films – I missed his first major role in 2008’s college football drama “The Express,” as well as one of his most recent films, the police procedural “21 Bridges,” directed by the Russo Brothers, of “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” renown. But I’ve also seen a few films of his that many people have not…yet.
The brooding “A Message from the King,” which sounds like a sequel to “Black Panther” (alas, we’ll never get one of those), is actually a dark crime thriller from 2017 about Cape Town resident Jacob King (Boseman), who journeys to Los Angeles after learning that his estranged sister may be in trouble. King finds himself in LA’s dark underbelly, where wealthy doctors and producers prowl and where the barely-there often succumb to prostitution to survive. Boseman attempted a South African accent in the early scenes but quickly abandoned it in favor of the Wakandan dialect he used in four Marvel films. That being said, he had a strong screen presence despite the accent misstep, and if you like downers such as “8MM” or “Death Wish,” this will be right up your alley; you’ll certainly never look at Luke Evans the same way again.
One of Boseman’s final films, the Spike Lee joint “Da 5 Bloods,” is a rambling film about Vietnam during the War and again today, as seen from the perspective of four aging veterans, led by an excellent Delroy Lindo, who return to the still-heavily-mined country to retrieve the body of their platoon leader (Boseman) along with a stash of hidden gold bars, originally meant as a gift to the Vietnamese people by the CIA but since buried near the site of a chopper crash. Lee, who released the movie on Netflix after COVID-19 shut down theaters, seems torn about the de-aging technology perfected in films such as last year’s “The Irishman.” He casts the same actors as their young and old selves, and if not for the boxy ratio and sepia tone of the flashbacks, we might not be sure what timeline we are watching. Still, large parts of the film are quite moving, and Boseman’s peacemaker character is the most noble in the film.
Aside from those two films, Boseman’s movies need little introduction. In “42” (2013), he seared through the screen as Jackie Robinson, the first African-American ballplayer in the MLB, and, starring opposite Harrison Ford, gave the septuagenarian his best role in years as Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey. The following year, Boseman filled even bigger shoes as soul singer James Brown in “Get on Up.” Unlike the stars of many musical biopics, Boseman sang his own songs. He is electrifying to watch, but the movie is otherwise terrible, with one of the worst opening scenes in any film I’ve seen. Had it been better, Boseman probably would’ve garnered an Oscar nomination.
Boseman spent much of 2015 filming “Captain America: Civil War,” his first collaboration with the Russo Brothers. Playing T’Challa, the future king of Wakanda, Boseman didn’t have a lot of screen time (he shared it with approximately 11 other Avengers, including the title character, but he had one terrific chase sequence through the streets of Vienna). His next major film – and arguably his best – received the first-ever Best Picture Oscar nomination for a superhero movie. I’m talking, of course, about “Black Panther.”
Aside from a prologue in San Francisco and an impressive set-piece in Seoul, the film takes place almost entirely in Wakanda, a little-known enclave of East Africa where people live in peace, cherishing ancient customs and living off the mineral-rich land. Chief among those minerals is vibranium, used to forge, among other things, Captain America’s shield, but unknown to the rest of the world as a viable energy source, aside from a few opportunists like Klaue (Andy Serkis) and the misguided Erik Killmonger (a superb Michael B. Jordan). Wakanda, of course, is a fictitious country imagined by the late Stan Lee, but when watching “Black Panther,” you would be forgiven for wishing it was real. The film won three Oscars against an impressive seven nominations, a feat that Marvel and DC have yet to top.
It is important to mention that at some point during the filming of “Black Panther,” Boseman was diagnosed with colon cancer. According to an interview with his agent for The Hollywood Reporter, it was Boseman’s mother who told him to keep the diagnosis a secret. Social media comments by his “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler suggest that even the cast and crew were kept mostly in the dark. But watching Boseman’s T’Challa wrestle first, rival tribal chief M’Baku, and later, Killmonger himself, on a watery ledge for control of the kingdom, I would have never guessed that he was sick. Neither, it appears, did anyone else.
I will get to the third and fourth “Avengers” films in a moment; both were filmed back-to-back but his role was small enough in each to allow him time to appear in between as the title character in “Marshall,” less a cradle-to-grave biopic of Thurgood Marshall than an examination of how the future Supreme Court Justice (the first African-American to be appointed to the Court) made an early name for himself as a defense attorney in a case of attempted murder – a case that almost everyone wanted swept under the carpet quickly and quietly. Boseman, as usual, commanded his every scene, though the script didn’t give him the speechifying that so often defines legal dramas, and that so often earns Oscar nods for the actors doing such grandstanding.
In 2018, “Avengers: Infinity War” brought the largest-yet cast of Marvel superheroes together, from OG’s Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow to newer faces like Falcon, Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Only Hawkeye and Ant-Man were missing. With so much narrative bouncing from place to place, it was hardly surprising that Black Panther didn’t even make an appearance until the final third of the movie. But what a final third that was! Thanos (Josh Brolin), the oddly-sympathetic villain, joined his hordes for an epic final battle in where else but Wakanda, and you can color me shocked when the bad guy won, killing Vision to steal the last Infinity Stone and, with a devastating snap, erasing half of all living things from existence. I saw “Infinity War” in a sold-out theater on opening night (no more of that – thanks, COVID!), and as half of our heroes literally turned to dust, the death that earned the loudest gasp was that of T’Challa himself. The cry of Okoye (Danai Gurira) at the death of her king echoed that of a visibly shaken audience. <Oh, SPOILER ALERT. Sorry.>
In last year’s “Avengers: Endgame,” it was hardly surprising that the remaining Avengers, under the direction of the Russo Brothers once again, were able to reverse what Thanos had done. A final, glorious moment in the last battle sees T’Challa, Peter Quill, Bucky Barnes, and others return to deliver some post-resurrection punches. The time travel science didn’t make much sense, but the film was enormously satisfying, with only two Avengers biting the dust this time. One of the final shots showed T’Challa standing beside his mother and sister, gazing out over his bustling empire, which we assume he had finally opened up to the world for trade. A stirring end to Phase 3 of the MCU, and alas, the last that we would see of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther.
Personally, I prefer “Infinity War” to “Endgame,” and not just because it didn’t have the latter film’s wonky time travel. It was a tighter movie, and despite – or because of – the dizzying scene changes, its ending seemed less telegraphed in advance. How many moviegoers expected half of Marvel’s Avengers to disappear before our eyes?! Not I, Loyal Readers, not I.
That being said, Boseman’s unexpected passing lends a pall over that film. I suspect that watching his character turn to dust will be harder to bear next time. I know, I know – it’s only a movie. But it’s a movie that may become a tough watch for this 2020 survivor. What a crazy year!
In addition to “21 Bridges,” which I’m told is available for streaming on Prime Video, the other movie of Boseman’s that I look forward to is “August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” A terrible name for a film, but an actor’s smorgasbord methinks, like 2018’s “Fences,” another adaptation of playwright Wilson’s work that won Viola Davis a long-overdue Oscar, and got director/producer/star Denzel Washington his eighth and ninth Oscar nominations. This time, Davis plays the title character, a Chicago Blues singer who has a battle of wits with her trumpeter, Levee, played by Boseman in what would be his final performance.
Earlier this week, Washington paid tribute to Boseman, calling him “a gentle soul and a brilliant artist, who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances over his short but illustrious career.” I couldn’t put it any better than that, except to add that had Boseman recovered, he would surely have one day won an Oscar – he was that good.
He will be missed. As fans are saying in the Twittersphere, #WakandaForever.