How Chadwick Boseman became an African-American Icon

As bad as 2020 has been, it can’t get any worse. An African-American icon, a true king, has fallen. Best known for his portrayal of King T’Challa (Black Panther) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Boseman never publicly spoke about his cancer, having been diagnosed with it for four years and yet, in every interview, he was vocal about the hardships of being black in a white-dominated Hollywood.

“You don’t have the same exact experience as a black actor as you do as a white actor. You don’t have the same opportunities.” He told AP while promoting his movie 42. “That’s evident and true. The best way to put it is: How often do you see a movie about a black hero who has a love story — with a black woman or any woman for that matter… he has a spirituality. He has an intellect. It’s weird to say it, but it doesn’t happen that often.”

Having spent most of his career adapting the untold stories of African-American heroes, Chadwick knew the pain of being black. From capturing the essence of great Americans like Jackie Robinson in 42, soul icon James Brown in Get on Up, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, or taking a turn in Spike Lee’s latest feature Da 5 Bloods as a US freedom fighter in Vietnam War to portraying Yasuke, the only known Samurai of African Origin in Doug Miro’s upcoming Yasuke, Boseman became a cultural icon and idol for people of colour.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Chadwick became interested in writing after one of his classmates got shot in high school, and he wrote a play named Crossroads to pay his tribute. Fascinated with writing/direction, he attended Howard University in Washington where one of his teachers was Phylicia Rashad, the actress who played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, who later on convinced Denzel Washington to pay for Chadwick’s Summer Theatre Program at The University of Oxford. While at the university he worked in an African bookstore and embarked on a trip to Ghana, where he learnt a lot about his own African culture and origins.

There is no BLACK PANTHER without Denzel Washington

After graduating with a degree in directing in 2000, he lived in Brooklyn spending time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem where he taught acting to kids of colour at a Black Research Library. He moved to LA in 2008, and after guest starring on a few TV shows, finally caught the eye of Hollywood with 42, portraying the life and times of Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball Player. Although it was an unfortunate occurrence that Chadwick died on the day MLB was celebrating Jackie Robinson day.

Boseman played baseball and saw Robinson as his hero. He wanted to get the portrayal right so that the people of colour will watch it and see the hero in themselves. And as a consummate professional, he absorbed every story, every memory and every photo & film excerpt he could consume to help translate the soul of an American hero, showing millions of black and brown children the power of a superhero who looks like them.

In an interview promoting 42, Chadwick said “The story is relevant because we still stand on his shoulders. Robinson started something — I would even say maybe he didn’t even start it, it started before him. But he carried the torch. And he carried it alone for a period of time before other people could help him. He had this fire that allows him to take this punishment but also figure out savvy ways of giving it back.”

42 received critical acclaim and Chadwick’s performance got dubbed as winning, confident and heartfelt. He became a household name among black Americans and stepping on the steam went on to portray another one of his idols James Brown in Get on Up. “I was probably listening to James Brown in the crib. My aunt seemed to listen to him. My mom and dad. There was always James Brown all day,” he told THR’s Tatiana Siegel in 2014.

Portraying another African-American idol in a biopic, Chadwick became the voice of stories of colour in a quest to adapt more untold sagas for the big screen, but that did not come without criticism. “Most people nowadays say that you don’t need to do any more biopics, you don’t need to play more real people,” he told an interviewer.

Every year, Hollywood looks for that new white leading man and new white starlet that audiences fall in love with. But they’re not looking for the next Denzel Washington, Will Smith or Sidney Poitier. This is no hidden truth, everyone observes, acknowledges and move on, but Boseman had enough of it, he wanted to be the voice of change and reason with the stories he told. And his biggest cultural impact came with portraying King T’Challa (Black Panther), the proud king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The movie became a cultural touchstone with its black-led cast, and children of colour finally found their idol in a superhero who shared the same skin and heritage.

“I hope people will watch this and see the hero in themselves. Even if its a white person who sees it, if they can see a black character and identify with him, it changes a little bit about how our society is.” Chadwick told a reporter while promoting MCU’s Black Panther. “The biggest challenge playing Black Panther is searching for what my real culture is. As an African-American, I have searched for that my entire life but i was playing a person who didn’t have to search for it. There is a certain patriotism to something that has never been lost — its ancient. Words can’t describe what this movie means to each person of colour. I never thought i would see a studio say ‘Yeah, we are going to put the money behind this movie with a mostly black cast’. It made me more idealistic about the world.”

A true fighter, Boseman shot Black panther and several other movies during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy. It was his honour to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther, and its an even bigger honour for us to witness him as our king. He’s one of those genuine souls that make you bow for their heart, courage and perseverance. He once said, “You have to cherish things in a different way when you know the clock is ticking, you are under pressure.” We could never know what kind of pressure he felt over the past four years, no one can even imagine, we can only send him off the same way we greeted the LA premiere of Black Panther, with a standing ovation, cause a chieftain has fallen, a king, a warrior, a friend, a true believer, a hope of light in these troubled racially divided times.


Wakanda Forever!