When Black Panther dies in “Avengers: Infinity War,” I didn’t believe it. He was too great a character to write out of the franchise.
When I heard the news today that actor Chadwick Boseman had died of colon cancer at the age of 43, I felt the same thing, only magnified by real life and real tragedy. Boseman was too great for him to leave this life so soon.
I served as consulting producer on the HBO documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown”; Boseman starred as Brown in “Get On Up,” the big-screen movie version that was made from the same source material.
Boseman specialized in bringing the lives of bigger-than-life Black icons like Brown to the big screen. If he had only played Black Panther, he would have deservedly been a legend–but he did much more than that. He also played Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as a younger man in “Marshall” and baseball legend Jackie Robinson in “42.”
When I was growing up, Black heroes, let alone superheroes like Black Panther, were much more of a rarity in Hollywood movies. Black characters were more likely to be criminals or clowns; if they were positive roles, they were likely to be small parts, or in small movies. Boseman followed in the tradition of Denzel Washington—he focused on roles that uplifted Black viewers, and he managed to win parts in movies that were significant releases.
Boseman didn’t play cardboard heroes. His James Brown is a deeply-flawed man, fueled by ambition, driven by demons, wracked by addictions. But Brown was also indisputably a genius musician. That’s what we all want and expect of our storytellers–to go beyond stereotypes and tropes and portray our stories in their complexity and glory.
In a statement, Boseman’s family said that since 2016, he had been in treatment for stage-III colon cancer, which progressed to stage IV. That meant he filmed some of his greatest roles, like “Black Panther,” while he was fighting a deadly illness. Former President Barack Obama said in a statement about the actor’s passing, “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.”
It’s hard to get authentic movies about Black life made in Hollywood. The efforts and accomplishments of people like Boseman, like Washington and Sidney Poitier in years past, have helped blaze a trail for other actors to follow. Because Boseman fought to play heroes in the movies, he succeeded in becoming one in real life.
[This post has been updated.]