Representation Forever: Remembering Chadwick Boseman

"In Chadwick's portrayal of King T'Challa, I saw myself as a superhero for the very first time"

My first encounter with superheroes was the 2002 film Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. Like Peter Parker, I was a bookworm as a child and identified with feeling like something of an outcast at school. That, however, was where the similarities ended. When I saw my classmates pretending to shoot spider webs out of their palms at recess, I couldn’t help but feel like I could never acquire such powers. Even at seven years old, I recognized that being a “superhero” was something special and because Parker looked nothing like me, I assumed that I probably wasn’t. That was, until Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa, King of Wakanda, in the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther

There are few artists whose legacy includes making box office history, inspiring an entire generation and disrupting a well-established industry, all while silently battling a terminal illness. This is how the late Boseman, who passed away at the age of 43 on August 28 after a prolonged and quiet battle with colon cancer, will forever be remembered.

Boseman worked hard for his success. After studying fine arts and graduating from Howard University, one of the most prestigious historically Black colleges and universities in America, the actor moved to New York City where he worked a variety of film industry gigs including acting, directing, writing and teaching. His big break would come at the age of 35, late by industry standards, in 2013 when he was cast to play baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the autobiographical film 42, which depicted the discrimination Robinson faced after the racial integration of Major League Baseball. In 2014, Boseman, who grew up in South Carolina, would take on the role of another trailblazing Black icon when he starred as James Brown in Get On Up. His outstanding performance in 42 not only earned him with the award for Breakthrough Performance of the Year at the Acapulco Black Film Festival but also grabbed the attention of Black Panther producer Nate Moore who once said: “There was such an honour and dignity to the way that he played Jackie Robinson that we knew we needed him for T’Challa, the Prince of Wakanda.” Two years later, in 2016, the actor took on the role of a lifetime when he signed a five-picture deal with Marvel Studios to play King T’Challa (also known as Black Panther), making history in the process by becoming the very first Black superhero in the Marvel universe to appear on the big screen. 

The year 2016 would bring life-changing news for Boseman in more ways than one. It was also the year he would be diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer which he would silently battle for four years as it progressed to Stage 4. He starred in several films while fighting the disease, including Black Panther. “A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much. From Marshall to Da 5 Bloods, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy,” reads a statement on Boseman’s Instagram account confirming his tragic death. “It was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther. ⁣He died in his home, with his wife and family by his side.”

By all measures, 2018’s Black Panther was a colossal success. It grossed over $1.3 billion USD worldwide, making it the ninth highest-grossing movie of all time, and received seven Academy Award nominations (it took home three). The film also propelled the careers of actors like Boseman, Danai GuriraMichael B. Jordan and Letitia Wright, along with director Ryan Coogler, to new heights. But the box office success and countless industry accolades would pale in comparison to the immeasurable impact that having an almost entirely Black cast, as well as a notable Black presence among crew members (like costume designer Ruth E. Carter who went on to win an Oscar for her designs, making her the first African American to do so), would have on the Black community and what it would mean for Black representation in film. 

Seeing a Black man, with rich dark skin and Afro-textured hair, play the regal and revered leader of an all-Black nation sent a powerful message to its audience. It reinforced the fact that Black people are powerful, beautiful, intelligent, excellent, multifaceted and, most importantly, that they too can be heroes, royalty. Black Panther’s message was, and is, particularly significant for Black children. According to The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity, edited by Steven Ratuva, false and stereotypical representation of groups of people can lead to lower self-esteem among racialized children. Boseman’s T’Challa broke the mold. As TSN anchor Kayla Grey tweeted, “that was OUR Superman.”

And Boseman didn’t just play the role of T’Challa. According to the New York Times, he admired the character in Marvel’s “Black Panther” comics since attending Howard University, where he worked at an African bookstore as an undergraduate, and pushed for accurate representation when bringing the character to life. “When the opportunity came to bring the character — and his fictional African homeland, Wakanda — to the big screen, Mr. Boseman embraced the role’s symbolic significance to Black audiences with a statesman’s pride and devotion,” the tribute reads. “He lobbied for the characters to speak in authentic South African accents, and led on-set cast discussions about ancient African symbolism and spirituality.”

Superheroes are characters that possess capabilities far beyond the average person—super powers. Until Chadwick Boseman’s role as T’Challa in Black Panther, the people bestowed with super powers in Hollywood films had been overwhelmingly white. A Forbes article points out that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 69% of major characters are of white or caucasian descent, while only 19% of major characters are Black or African American, with 41% of that number belonging to Black Panther alone. Black Panther’s representation is more important than ever as the pandemic of anti-Black racism continues to ravage the globe and protests against it, in light of recent police brutality in the United States, march on. 

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in 'Black Panther' (Photo: Marvel Studios)
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in ‘Black Panther’ (Photo: Marvel Studios)

In her book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, author Nancy Wang Yuen writes: “Racism, in the form of job exclusion and racially stereotyped roles, has defined the Hollywood film industry since its birth in the early 1900s.” Minority actors and actresses, especially Black actors, are routinely confined to one-dimensional, stereotypical and often overtly racist roles in film. Even when Black characters are portrayed with the complexities that characterize all human beings, such as in the film Queen & Slim, these depictions are often not produced on a scale or with a budget as large as Black Panther. These kinds of rich and complex characters are frequently “othered” and don’t always make it to mainstream media. 

This is why a movie like Black Panther is so meaningful. From its celebration of African history and portrayal of fierce Black women to the film’s epic costume design and natural hairstyles, it honours its Black viewers. Before his heartbreaking death to colon cancer at the age of 43, Boseman said in a Time Magazine interview: “To have the opportunity to pull from real ideas, real places, and real African concepts, and put it inside of this idea of Wakanda, that’s a great opportunity to develop a sense of what that identity is, especially when you’re disconnected from it.” This is something that myself and others of the African diaspora can relate to. Black Panther is so much more than just a movie with a Black hero, it was created for Black people as a joyful celebration of our excellence. We have Chadwick Boseman, in large part, to thank for that.