The mournful message has spread far and wide, and the message is clear: Wakanda has lost another king. On August 28th, 2020, Chadwick Boseman, the actor known for his portrayal of T'Challa - the Black Panther - in the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, lost his struggle against colon cancer at the age of 43.
Born on November 29th, 1976, Boseman was born and raised in in Anderson, South Carolina. Originally graduating from Howard University with a BFA in Directing, Boseman’s creative pursuits soon led to him studying acting and performing professionally. His impressive performances of historic figures like Jackie Robinson and James Brown in film’s like 42 and Get On Up earned him a reputation as a virtuoso actor, but it was his performance as T’Challa in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War and the Black Panther film that followed that turned Boseman into not only a world-famous movie star, but a cultural icon.
Being a white man, I can't appropriately speak to what Boseman and his loss means to the Black community, but there's no ignoring the pain and sorrow so many have been feeling in the wake of the actor's death. What I can speak to is being an absolute and devoted fan when it comes to Boseman's depiction of male super heroics in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and T'Challa as a symbol of kind and measured leadership, humility, and, most importantly, empathy.
“Chadwick’s passing is absolutely devastating. He was our T’Challa, our Black Panther, and our dear friend… He was as smart and kind and powerful and strong as any person he portrayed. Now, he takes his place alongside them as an icon for the ages.”
- Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios and chief creative officer of Marvel
Boseman's T'Challa is a demonstration that empathy is not a weakness, but one of the greatest strengths a person, especially a leader, can possess. After his father's murder, it's empathy that allows T'Challa to abandon his quest for vengeance before it consumes him. It’s empathy that unites former adversaries M’Baku and T’Challa when the pillars of their nation are threatened, and it’s empathy that T’Challa shows N’Jadaka (also known as Erik Killmonger) in his final moments. Finally, it’s that same empathy that allows T’Challa to understand N’Jadaka’s actions, recognize the failures of the kings that came before him, and take action by using Wakanda’s wealth, resources, and strength to help underprivileged and disenfranchised Black citizens around the globe. In his titular film, T'Challa doesn’t succeed by defeating his enemy in battle or sacrificing himself for the greater good. Instead, he learns from his enemy, recognizes the conditions that created his pain and anger, and seeks to use his privilege to correct wrongs committed in the past and expand the greater good. It seems much could be learned from T’Challa’s leadership these days, and it’s impossible to consider that this was somehow lost on Boseman.
"In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.”
- T’Challa, Black Panther
While many like to depict both Disney and Marvel Studios as corporate machines that crank out slightly different versions of the same commercial product, it would be a massive disservice to think of Boseman’s time as Black Panther as that of a cog in machine. Not only is the proof on the screen, but his fellow cast members have all spoken to Boseman’s connection to the character and his important cultural role. Actress Danai Gurira wrote on social that “My entire job as Okoye was to respect and protect a king. Honor his leadership. Chadwick made that job profoundly easy. He was the epitome of kindness, elegance, diligence, and grace. On many an occasion, I would think how thankful I was that he was the leading man I was working closely with. A true class act. And so perfectly equipped to take on the responsibility of leading the franchise that changed everything for Black representation.” Actor Michael B. Jordan wrote on Instagram about how much Boseman had given the world including “the legends and heroes that you’ve shown us we are.” Jordan went on to write that “the thing that hurts the most is that I now understand how much of a legend and hero YOU are. Through it all, you never lost sight of what you loved most. You cared about your family, your friends, your craft, your spirit. You cared about the kids, the community, our culture and humanity.” In an incredibly moving message, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler described how integrated and protective Boseman was of the onscreen depiction of the character, explaining how the decision to have Xhosa be the official language of Wakanda was solidified by Boseman and how the actor had also advocated for his character to speak with an African accent, so that he could present T'Challa to audiences as “an African king, whose dialect had not been conquered by the West.”
“In African cultures we often refer to loved ones that have passed on as ancestors. Sometimes, you are genetically related. Sometimes, you are not. I had the privilege of directing scenes of Chad's character, T'Challa, communicating with the ancestors of Wakanda. We were in Atlanta, in an abandoned warehouse, with bluescreens and massive movie lights, but Chad's performance made it feel real. I think it was because from the time that I met him, the ancestors spoke through him. It's no secret to me now how he was able to skillfully portray some of our most notable ones. I had no doubt that he would live on and continue to bless us with more. But it is with a heavy heart and a sense of deep gratitude to have ever been in his presence, that I have to reckon with the fact that Chad is an ancestor now. And I know that he will watch over us, until we meet again.” - Ryan Cooler, director of Black Panther
Ultimately, we were all lucky for the time Boseman was able to spend with us. Like many of his fellow Avengers, Boseman spent time visiting and inspiring young fans who were struggling with cancer, and those visits are even more poignant now in retrospect given the information we have now of his own struggle with cancer. In many ways, Boseman was more than just an actor portraying a comic book hero. He, in fact, shared T’Challa's hero’s heart in more ways than one. When it comes to Black Panther, Boseman’s legacy will live on for years and years to come. For the majority of the world, Boseman was that character and forever will be. Nothing can change that.
There will come a time to consider where the story of T’Challa and the people of Wakanda go next (and there are a wealth of possibilities), but now is not that time. For now, we stand united with his friends and family, mourning the loss of a powerful soul, honoring the life of one of the truest hearts, and remembering the experiences, emotions, and lessons Boseman shared with each of us whether we knew him personally or not.
Rest in power, our king. Wakanda forever.
“"In my culture, death is not the end. It's more of a stepping-off point. You reach out with both hands and Bast and Sekhmet, they lead you into a green veld where... you can run forever."
- T’Challa, Captain America: Civil War