Chadwick Boseman was born on 29 November, 1976 and raised in South Carolina, USA, the youngest of three boys. His mother, Carolyn, was a nurse and his father, Leroy, worked for an agricultural conglomerate and had a side business as an upholsterer.
“I saw him work a lot of third shifts, a lot of night shifts,” Mr. Boseman told The New York Times last year. “Whenever I work a particularly hard week, I think of him.”
His closest role models were his two brothers: Derrick, the eldest, a preacher in Tennessee; and Kevin, a dancer who has performed with the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey troupes and toured with the stage adaptation of “The Lion King.”
In Anderson in the 1980s, Boseman said, there was little context for a boy who dreamed of becoming a dancer, let alone a black one. “It was like, ‘What is that?’” he said of his parents’ initial reaction to his brother’s chosen field. “It wasn’t something that my family understood.”
But Kevin persisted and, ultimately, excelled. In time, the folks came around, helping him get into the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in nearby Greenville.
“He had the resolve to be like, ‘No — I have something; I’m going to do it anyway, right or wrong,’” Chadwick said. “And he was right.”
Some days, Chadwick’s mother would take him to pick up Kevin from school theater or dance rehearsals. He would watch the action onstage, mesmerized by verbal directions he strained to comprehend, and by the lights, and by the grace-filled bodies in wordless dialogue.
In high school, Mr. Boseman was a serious basketball player but turned to storytelling after a friend and teammate was shot and killed. Mr. Boseman processed his emotions by writing what he eventually realized was a play. When it was time to consider colleges, he chose an arts program at Howard University, with a dream of becoming a director.
At Howard, he took an acting class with the Tony Award-winning actress and director Phylicia Rashad, who helped him get into an elite theater program at the University of Oxford, an adventure he later learned had been financed by a friend of hers: Denzel Washington.
He visited Africa for the first time during college with director and theater professor Mike Malone, working in Ghana to preserve and celebrate rituals with performances on a proscenium stage. He later called the trip “one of the most significant learning experiences of my life.”
To earn money while at Howard, Mr. Boseman taught acting to students at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
After college, he moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he spent his days in coffee shops — playing chess and writing plays to direct, some of which were influenced by hip-hop and pan-African theology.
He landed one-off television roles in “Law & Order,” “CSI: NY” and “Cold Case,” and eventually booked a recurring role in the 2007-9 ABC Family series “Lincoln Heights.”
The show filmed in Los Angeles and afforded Chadwick his first real taste of Hollywood.
“Before that, I had just wanted to be an artist in New York,” Mr. Boseman said. “I didn’t understand that coming to L.A. and trying to be a film actor was a completely different thing.” He landed the role of Jackie Robinson within 2 years of arriving in L.A. and his star was in its ascendency.
Mr. Boseman portrayed the baseball icon Jackie Robinson in “42,” in 2013, the soul singer James Brown in “Get On Up,” in 2014, and the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall,” in 2017.
Of playing James Brown, Chadwick said, “I can’t even imagine something being more fun than playing James Brown onstage. You know what I mean? The last performance, it was Boston Garden, I didn’t want it to end because by that time because you’re a rock star. The extras in the crowd really were enjoying themselves and you really were entertaining them.”
Brian Helgeland, the writer and director of “42,” the Jackie Robinson movie that gave Boseman his breakout role, told me the actor reminded him of sturdy, self-assured icons of 1970s virility, like Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood.
“It’s the way he carries himself, his stillness — you just have that feeling that you’re around a strong person,” Helgeland said. He remembered choosing Chadwick to anchor his film after seeing only two other auditions. “There’s a scene in the movie where Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, puts his arm around him as a kind of show of solidarity. But Chad flips it on its head. He plays it like, ‘I’m doing fine, I’m tough as nails, but go ahead and put your arm around me if it makes you feel better.’ I think that’s who Chad is as a person.”
But he was best known for his role as T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, in “Black Panther,” the 2018 Marvel superhero movie.
“Black Panther,” which smashed box office records, was the first major superhero film with an African protagonist, a majority cast of African descent and a writer and director of African ancestry.
Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick’s co-star and love interest in “Black Panther,” described his career choices as those of a socially conscious history buff. She recalled a working session with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, and Boseman that he turned into a mini lecture on the ancient Egyptian iconography and spiritual customs that had informed the original comic book.
“He’s very keen to put human experiences in historical context,” she said. “Even with a world that was make-believe, he wanted to connect it to the world that we know and could try to understand.”
“In a pop taxonomy of black male nobility, he is cut squarely from the mold of Barack Obama — generally cool-blooded, affable, devoted to unglamorous fundamentals — a figure whom he is doubtlessly on a shortlist to portray in an inevitable epic”, wrote interviewer Reggie Ugwu in the New York Times on January 2, 2019, “Next up are starring roles in the New York police action drama “17 Bridges” (of which he is also a producer), the international thriller “Expatriate” (he’s producing and co-writing that one) and, barring an alien-invasion-level catastrophe, a wildly anticipated “Black Panther” sequel.”
Reading that interview afterwards, Chadwick would have known that that was unlikely to come to pass as he had received his diagnosis of Stage III Colon Cancer in 2016 and Black Panther and all the movies he starred in from 2016 to 2019, had been filmed even as he was undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. This was something those outside of his circle only knew of when his passing was announced on social media today.
Chadwick told Reggie that “For the role of T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, that meant conceiving of a childhood squeezed by the weight of an ancient unbroken dynasty. When it came to becoming Jackie Robinson, he focused on formative years as a Negro League firebrand that crystallized the baseball pioneer’s polished exterior. James Brown: a meditation on irrepressible self-confidence, long starved by years of deprivation and insult in Jim Crow South Carolina.” Chadwick went on, “You’re a strong black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great,” he continued. “So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?”
“I don’t think the world was ready for a ‘Black Panther’ movie before this moment. Socially and politically, it wasn’t ready for it,” he told Associated Press at the time that Black Panther was released.
At the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Award, “Black Panther” won best ensemble, electrifying the room. Before an auditorium full of actors, Chadwick Boseman stepped to the microphone. In his address, he quoted Nina Simone: “To be young, gifted and black,”.
“We know what it’s like to be told there isn’t a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on. … We know what’s like to be beneath and not above. And that is what we went to work with every day,” said Chadwick. “We knew that we could create a world that exemplified a world we wanted to see. We knew that we had something to give.”
The film’s vision of Afrofuturism and the technologically advanced civilization of Wakanda resonated with audiences, some of whom wore African attire to showings and helped propel “Black Panther” to more than $1.3 billion in global box office. It is the only Marvel Studios film to receive a best picture Oscar nomination.
“It’s the place where you start. All African Americans, unless they have some direct connection, have been severed from that past. There’s things that cannot be tracked,” he continued. “You were a product, sold. So it’s very difficult as an African American to connect at some points directly to Africa. I have made that part of my search in my life. So those things were already there when I got into the role.”
He had made his debut as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War (2016), and would go on to reprise the role in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). All were products of Marvel Studios and together formed part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), with its interconnecting storylines and characters. Chadwick’s work in the series, and especially in the Black Panther movie, was that it transcended the general corporate nature of the endeavour; the role, and the empowering message of that film, were of immense importance to him. He took research trips to South Africa to prepare for the part, traced his own ancestry and studied African martial arts and Masai warriors. “It’s a sea-change moment,” He told Rolling Stone magazine in 2018. “I truly believe there’s a truth that needs to enter the world at a particular time … This is the time.”
Black Panther was released at the height of #OscarsSoWhite, the backlash against black talent being overlooked by the Academy Awards, and in the aftermath of disparaging remarks that Donald Trump had made about Africa. It faced its own racist opposition in the form of a Facebook group (later shut down by the social media company) established to artificially lower the film’s score on the influential reviews aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. But the picture was an unambiguous critical success as well as a commercial one. Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times called it “crashingly enjoyable, frequently exciting and even, when it wants, borderline witty”.
The character was last seen standing silently dressed in a black suit at Tony Stark’s funeral in last year’s “Avengers: Endgame.” A “Black Panther” sequel had been announced, and was one of the studio’s most anticipated upcoming films.
He took on his first producing job in last year’s action thriller “21 Bridges,” in which he also starred, and was last seen on-screen in Spike Lee’s film “Da 5 Bloods” as the leader of a group of Black soldiers in the Vietnam War.
Chadwick completed one last performance, in an adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The Netflix film finished shooting last summer (2019).
Chadwick married his wife Taylor Simone Ledward before he passed.
Chadwick had asked Taylor, a singer who graduated from California State Polytechnic University, to marry him in October last year and the pair are thought to have said their vows in a private ceremony before the cancer advanced.
They kept much of their early relationship private, before allowing themselves to be pictured together at award ceremonies and red carpet premieres.
In March 2019, he spoke about their romance for the first time at the 50th NAACP Image Awards, saying: ‘Simone, you’re with me every day. I have to acknowledge you right now. Love you.’
When the cameras panned to her, she could be seen mouthing back the words ‘I love you’.
Known as a private person, Chadwick was able to keep knowledge of his diagnosis and illness confined to family and close friends until he had passed away. So it was a shock to many of us when it was announced in the early hours of August 29, 2020 that he had joined those on the ancestral plane in the preceding hours, on August 28,2020. The news was announced on social media:
Chadwick left behind a body of work that is only a part of his legacy. In particular for many in the world, they looked forward to Black Panther as merely the latest release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To so many of us of African descent, the movie meant so much more. It was our first chance to see a film where not only the main characters were black but almost the entire cast. We got to see what could have happened to at least one nation in Africa, if it had been able to evade the onslaught of the Europeans and their Transatlantic Slave Trade and the evils of empire and colonisation. We got to see the onscreen kiss of a dark and beautiful couple. We got to see ourselves as the heroes that all of us are, as we overcome, triumph and keep going, every day. We saw ourselves finally humanised in our numbers on screen, with all of our natural beauty, exuberance, humour and unity. Only God knows what Chadwick endured emotionally, spiritually and physically while filming those movies after his diagnosis, for us all to enjoy but for generations to come, those films will still be there.
Sources: AP, The Guardian, The New York Times
See also: Film: Black Panther in the Encyclopaedia Africana & Actor Chadwick Boseman dies aged 43 in The Listening Tree Section