Celebrity deaths tend to be straightforward news for me, easy enough to accept, even when I’m an admirer of the star in question. What ends befall the famous rarely wound or trouble me much at all. When someone I admire disappears from this life, my internal monologue peacefully rambles: A person succeeded, impacted, inspired, created joy & depth. This soul traveled well, and has earned the right to rest. I’ve even taken pride in remaining upright during these moments of public mourning, that I don’t reflexively respond to loss.
How uncharacteristic it was, then, for me to be devastated when I read Chadwick Boseman had died. I guess it seemed he was just beginning the chapter of his life when his work would be termed legendary. Boseman was one of our greatest contemporary actors, an icon at a time when we have few. At 43 years old, he was part of my generation—far too young to vanish altogether.
He came into his power as an international star relatively recently, but throughout his career, Boseman habitually chose powerful, resonant roles, and he always left his mark. Like many, I became familiar with Boseman through his portrayal of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda (a fictional, independent African nation in the Marvel Comics universe). His character protected his people and his country as the stunningly powerful Black Panther in the eponymous film.
To call the release of Black Panther an international phenomenon hardly does it justice. The film made money, yeah. It made people’s careers, sure. But even before going public, the energy surrounding this film was special. It was so much bigger, so much greater than many of us blerds had dared hope. From Black Americans and Africans to Brazilians, in corners throughout the whole Black diaspora, Black Panther showcased Black excellence in every possible dimension.
Black women of every shade and every kind of crown saw ourselves mirrored in the brilliance, strength, humor and love of Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, and the many other women actors who brought their absolute A-game to this film. All these women carry themselves so regally; we cannot help but hold our own heads high in response. Around the world, countless Black children entered movie theaters to see, often for the first time, heroes who looked like them, their friends, their neighbors, their family. Some recognized this as their first time understanding Blackness was a gift, not (just) a burden. And although we’re more accustomed to seeing Black men onscreen, representations throughout history have been overwhelmingly negative. It is exhausting to be inundated with the same stereotypes again and again, even from the outside; the cumulative trauma on Black men themselves can be deeply damaging. Black Panther is among the ultra-rare exceptions where a commonly-stereotyped minority rises above the second dimension with self-control, dignity and grace. In Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, James Earl Jones, and all the talented men in the cast, Black men who watched the film could relax, or thrill to the certainty that they too are beautiful and powerful—that they too are worthy of love.
The release of that film—that cultural and social happening—was epiphanic. Much like the electricity generated by the activist Black Panther Party in 1966, this moment sparked hope. It gave Black people an instant of dominance, of presence and voice and undeniable glory. That evening, our A-list actors lit up the red carpet in celebration of their achievement, showcasing Black beauty in glittering diversity.
I like to keep my expectations low for this kind of thing; I didn’t assume the film would move me. But it did, and Boseman was an integral part of that. Throughout his career, Boseman consciously chose how he’d be seen. He lost his first significant role, on All My Children, when he told the producers he was concerned his character—a gang member—reinforced too many negative stereotypes. Boseman was subsequently fired for being “too difficult,” but the producers did, in fact, accept some of his critique, making changes to the character before offering the role to Boseman’s longtime friend, Michael B. Jordan. Eventually he’d have far better options. The starring roles Boseman took in films over last decade included Thurgood Marshall (Marshall, 2017), James Brown (Get on Up, 2014), and Jackie Robinson (42, 2013).
This was a man who acted with intention. He was careful to touch others’ lives wisely and positively. When interviewed about his influence, actors and directors who worked with Boseman universally remarked that he “raised the bar” every time he stepped on set. He never held back in his own performances, so he consistently brought out the best in those who surrounded him.
Among my personal anti-mottos is the phrase: No more heroes. I use this saying to remind myself that the very best of us is flawed—partly to tell myself that, as Alice Walker put it, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for. We can’t put the burden of saving ourselves or the world on anyone else’s shoulders, because there is no one else. On a personal level, I also adopted the mantra because I’d been disappointed by too many people too often, taking their virtue or intentions at face value. I found that approach to be, ultimately, not only unwise, but unforgiving. Humans have flaws. We’re extremely susceptible to corruption and temptation. That’s partly why the myth of the lone genius or the individual Superman is so damaging: People need to work together in order to accomplish great things.
A truism that basic should’ve been internalized by most of us in kindergarten. Yet increasingly over the past six months, it’s become apparent that our storied American individualism has become dangerously ingrown; it’s festered and rotted inside us. There have been cracks in the foundation of our society for some time—and lately, they’ve grown frighteningly large.
The plague has called our attention to these flaws: 45 and his ragtag team of neo-swamp things relentlessly create and exploit more every day. Steve Bannon’s O.G. plan to dismantle the federal government piece by piece is legitimately coming to fruition (tho the man himself is done, praise be). Our exsanguinated judiciary, the cynically corrupt healthcare system, our embattled postal service—god, our infrastructure, democracy, 🌏… None of these was in particularly great shape before the current powers-that-be got goofy with their sledgehammers, but this pandemic has revealed an avalanche of wreckage. 200,000 dead clear. Brainstorming aloud ideas for stealing the upcoming election? Kind of seems like the edge of the motherfucking plank to me.
With disaster looming on so many fronts, trustworthy people matter more than ever. And I guess Boseman seemed uniquely good to me. He embodied the old-school ideal of a “team player” although he was a uniquely powerful leader as well. I love watching his work. Among the films I’ve watched during quarantine, Message from the King and Da 5 Bloods rank among the most interesting and affecting. I will miss this man, this actor, terribly. I will miss his ready, blinding smile, his incomparable gravitas, and his goddamn delightful fashion choices.
But Boseman definitely meets my criteria for one who’s lived fully, with purpose and joy. So why, at the natural end of this very good life, did I break down crying?
I cried as I couldn’t when George Floyd was murdered; I didn’t watch the snuff film of his last ten minutes alive, either. I cried as I refuse to when 45 trumpets another blatantly racist policy, and crowds of people scream their approval. I cried as I couldn’t when I knew the Black Lives Matter protests would elicit institutional reform in a small handful of places, and cosmetic change everywhere else—including New York. I cried the way I wanted to when I read that Jacob Blake was shot in the back, and for the thousandth time, I knew that for most people, absolutely nothing has changed. One of Black people’s most visible, powerful, and vibrant representatives has been taken so early, so suddenly, with no one person or institution at fault to spark my anger; I can no longer deny my profound sense of loss.
I’m indescribably sad and furious that the history of our country is so steeped in racism and injustice, and borderline bitter that so many of us refuse to confront the legacies of our forebears, all the while reaping rewards from ugly, unconscionable acts. I’m furious that ignorance seems to be in fashion these days, and that so many people get their kicks by hurting others, directly or indirectly.
But for all my bite and bad attitude, how much am I doing about any of this? I can’t pretend to compare to someone like Boseman, whose focus, determination, generosity, loyalty, and work ethic seemed to be unflagging. He burned brightly as the star he became, and that undoubtably made a difference, to many of us.
My decided withdrawal from most society of late may have its reasons, but they’re also excuses. I don’t know if I have it in me to fight for the soul of this country, but I’m sure I don’t like who we’ve become. And I have to admit that I’m thinking seriously now about ways to engage with the world more than I ever have. Because there are really only so many of us. And so little time.