by Dr. Jason Johnson —
I have started and stopped writing about the passing of actor Chadwick Boseman several times. As a comic fan and a Black man around his age, Boseman’s passing at only 43 after a four-year battle with cancer leaves me heartbroken.
The words I needed just couldn’t translate from my brain to my fingers to the keyboard; until last night when I was talking to a good friend of mine.
“You know, at this point last year we’d have been partying at Dragon Con,” he said. “Man, if Chadwick died on the first Friday of Dragon Con, the whole weekend would be done.”
For those who don’t know, Dragon Con brings about 85,000 people every year to Atlanta during Labor Day weekend for one of the biggest, (and I would say Blackest) comic conventions in the country. The convention, like so many other things, has fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, my friend and I talked about how much Black folks loved “Black Panther” and Boseman’s role and how that movie opened the doors for so many African Americans to feel welcome in the convention space.
That helped me find the words I needed. Chadwick Boseman’s death denies his family and the world his love and talents, which makes it all the more important that the character he brought to the big screen, The Black Panther, continues for generations to come.
The first time I ever saw Chadwick Boseman was his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in the film “42” at a screening in downtown Atlanta. The movie was the perfect Oscar bait for Harrison Ford, who played White Savior “Branch Rickey,” the famous Brooklyn Dodgers manager who broke baseball’s apartheid by bringing in Robinson.
Yet, Boseman stole the show and actually made me care about baseball, which is an amazing accomplishment in and of itself. He was so physically impressive in the film, I remember telling a friend at the time, “This guy is like the perfect triangle shape, he LOOKS like a Superhero!”
It was 2013, “The Avengers” had just come out the year before, and lifelong Black comic book fans like myself were looking at every Black actor dreaming of who they might play. I had hoped Boseman would play the Falcon, or maybe jump to DC Comics and re-boot the terrible Green Lantern movie as John Stewart. I never imagined a Black Panther movie would get made, let alone that he would star in it.
I saw “Black Panther” four times in theaters. The first time after the credits I just sat there dumbfounded, literally not having the words to process what I had just seen. It was emotional, cultural and racial validation all wrapped up in a fantastic plot and acting. None of which would have been possible without Boseman.
For a celebrity I’ve never met in person, stories about Chadwick Boseman the actor often weaved in and out of my life in a way that made me root for him, personally as a Black man and as the current bearer of the mantle of Black Panther. I met a line producer from “42” at a cigar bar once who told me how nice Boseman was, how he taught other folks on set meditation techniques and was really chill.
My friends met him at Howard University’s 2018 graduation and said how kind and humble Chadwick was to everyone. My friends who were at Boseman’s now-viral interview at SIRIUS XM, when he got choked up talking about two little Black boys he had met who were fighting cancer, just hoping they could make it to see the movie “Black Panther.” They didn’t make it.
What many people don’t know is that Boseman was so broken up telling that story that he couldn’t finish the interview, he burst into tears in the bathroom but still expressed humanity and grace to others as he had to leave.
Professionally, he was loved for his versatility and cornering the market on Black biography and history films. I remember last year people joking on Black Twitter that Sterling K. Brown was in so many movies they were about to get Chadwick to play him in a biopic. I mean, do you realize how good of a man, personally and professionally, you have to be for ABC, Marvel and Disney to put together a whole televised memorial to you hosted by Robin Roberts in 48 hours during a pandemic?
Boseman was that Black man that everyone, men, women, children and especially generation X brothers like myself could rally around. He was courageous, good looking, humble, had a Black wife, went to an HBCU and was just hitting his stride as an actor. He was at the forefront of a new vanguard of Black male thespians like Sterling K. Brown, Michael B. Jordan and Lakeith Stanfied that we expected to watch for decades.
For the first time in our lives, Black leading roles would no longer be limited to whatever Denzel, Will, Laurence or Jamie could fit in their schedules. This is why, as heavy as my heart is right now, it’s so important that fans and industry people realize how important it is that the “Black Panther” movie legacy and franchise continue even with Boseman’s passing.
The Black Panther is a 50-year-old comic book character that has been written, drawn and voice acted by dozens of people over the years, and the character is bigger than one actor no matter how amazing he was.
I’ve seen seven different White guys play Batman in my lifetime, four white guys play Spider-Man, four White guys play Superman and two women play Aunt Viv on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” All movie roles, no matter how iconic, are meant to eventually be played and interpreted by other actors and directors so that other artists and fans can continue to re-discover them.
The Black Panther is a mantle, like Batman or Green Lantern, that can be worn by many and should be. Not to get too much into the comic book weeds, but for those saying “Shuri should take over as Black Panther” – yes in the comics she was Black Panther at one point because being Panther and being King are two different jobs, like being the Pope and being President.
However, eventually, Shuri gave the mantle back to T’Challa to chart her own path. It wasn’t permanent (Shuri’s solo adventures sounds like a great idea for a Disney Plus series though!)
Finally, let’s be honest: Disney, ABC and Marvel aren’t going to leave a billion-dollar franchise on the table. There will be a “Black Panther” sequel, and it will be the most sought after role in the history of Hollywood. Which, in and of itself will empower Black actors in ways we’ve never seen before. A new Black face will take on the awesome responsibility of not just the Black Panther role, but Chadwick Boseman’s legacy of activism, charity and dignity.
Boseman’s death has hit all of us hard. Someone told me that explaining to his kids that “Black Panther was dead” was almost as hard as telling them about George Floyd, and I can believe it. As a man around Boseman’s age, between him and Kobe Bryant passing earlier this year, I feel like mortality is smacking me in the face (I called my doctor on Monday for a cancer screening. Bless you, Chadwick.)
As low as I feel about his passing, I’m encouraged by the doors this will open for some other deserving actor. I’m encouraged by just now learning that this man battled cancer, still got married, filmed six movies, and mentored kids all before passing on at the age of 43.
Wakanda Forever meant the stories of Wakanda would go on forever, and that includes T’Challa, even as we mourn the passing of our first and forever king.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Politics and Journalism at Morgan State University, a Political Contributor at MSNBC and SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio. Notorious comic book and sports guy with dual Wakandan and Zamundan citizenship.)