Time will deal people sorrow when they least expect it, and one of those unexpected times came Friday night: Chadwick Boseman died. He was 43.
Few actors of color have played the high-profile roles that Boseman did. From Thurgood Marshall to Jackie Robinson to James Brown to Black Panther, perhaps the man’s role of roles, Boseman showcased a range of talent that made him an A-list actor in the vein of Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman.
Yet like each of them, Boseman struggled to break away from cinematic typecasting.
His ascent to Hollywood royalty was hardly meteoric, almost a myth these days anyway. Boseman took his turn at small parts and episodic work in “Law & Order,” “CSI: NY” and “ER,” mostly cameo appearances, before he was picked to play Robinson in the much-acclaimed baseball biopic “42.”
To look at “42” as a baseball film is to miss the point of it altogether. Boseman didn’t. He flushed out the Robinson character in ways that made the agony and ecstasy of one courageous Black man feel real. Viewers were hard-pressed to watch Boseman’s portrayal and not come away thinking Jackie himself might not have played his life any better.
While Boseman also did justice to soul singer James Brown in “Get on Up,” the 2014 film didn’t capture the public’s fancy. Worst still, the film barely broke even at the box office.
Three years later, his performance as Marshall, although riveting, didn’t do blockbuster numbers either. The biopic about the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court cost much less than “Get on Up” did, but it put Boseman’s face in front of audiences in a film more serious than the sing-and-dance parts that many Blacks have been cast for.
The movie, looking back at it today, set Boseman up for the kind of film that Black actors had long sought but had rarely gotten. He got the lead in the Marvel Comics feature “Black Panther,” a film blessed with a $200 million budget.
Boseman, who often decried roles he and other Blacks were forced to play, turned this fanciful Marvel tale about a Black superhero into a $1.3 billion bonanza for the Walt Disney Studios, which distributed the movie.
“Black Panther,” a film in discussion as far back as 1992, was everything “Get on Up,” “42” or “Marshall” could never have been. None had its budget. Boseman played the lead as if it might be his last. In hindsight, he might have been laying the foundation for other Black actors to appear in big-budget films.
His last film to hit the screen was “Da 5 Bloods” in 2020, an odd examination of the Vietnam War and of the male friendships forged there. Boseman and his fellow actors drew mixed reviews for this Netflix drama, which Spike Lee’s inept directing muddled.
Yet all the while, filmgoers waited eagerly the sequel to “Black Panther,” but they know now that what probably delayed its production was the star’s ill-health. Boseman was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016, two years before “Black Panther” reached the theater.
His cancer was a well-kept secret, but what does a man say to his fans when he’s looking at his mortality? His fans, however, have plenty to say: Thanks, Chadwick, for the big-screen memories.