I remember the first time I saw “Black Panther.” The theater was packed. The hype was insane and you could feel the positive energy in the room.
On the screen before the movie began was a title card with the entire cast pictured. Most prominently displayed was Chadwick Boseman, playing T’Challa, the Marvel character destined to unite his homeland of Wakanda with people from the outside world.
The woman sitting next to me kept saying to her friends, all African-American, “Chadwick Boseman — mmm mmm mmm,” in a way I’m sure people said in past decades about a young Denzel Washington, Robert Redford or Harrison Ford. Her saying that meant two things to me: He was a dual threat of being incredibly handsome, enough that women couldn’t contain their feelings when seeing a picture of him, and an icon, particularly for black audiences.
Thankfully, he got to live to see his status as a symbol for black resiliency and pride solidify in the cultural zeitgeist with his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, appearing in “Black Panther,” as well as “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity” and “Avengers: Endgame,” four of the biggest movies of all time. With his death on Aug. 28, after a quiet, four-year battle with colon cancer, his legend is established.
While Boseman’s tragic, shocking death had many tweeting pictures of him as T’Challa, his filmography beyond “Black Panther” speaks to what drove him as a person, often playing real-life people who fought for equality and justice, like Jackie Robinson in “42,” Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” and the fictional Vietnam veteran Norman Earl “Stormin’ Norm” Holloway in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.”
A through line across many of Boseman’s movies was him playing a character who, through grit and determination, achieves power that he wasn’t previously afforded by society. While none of them besides T’Challa had supernatural powers and Vibranium-coated outfits, Boseman treated them all with the same type of honor and dignity because he viewed them all as superheroes.
“People often ask, ‘What is Black Panther? What is his power?’ And they have a misconception that he only has power through his suit. The character is existing with power inside power,” he told Time Magazine.
At the peak of his career, Boseman showed off the superpower of optimism during what was likely a dark time in his life. While dealing with colon cancer, he shot back-to-back movies, visited children with chronic diseases and spoke out for justice for Black people in cases like George Floyd.
Boseman did it because he knew the power he carried as a symbol, whether it was a celebrity or person playing a Wakandan superhero, a barrier-breaking baseball player or a Supreme Court justice. In 43 years, he lived a life of selflessness and humility that we should all strive to achieve and will undoubtedly inspire future generations.