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Why Chadwick Boseman's Death Hurts So Much

In an already difficult year filled with so much Black death, losing an actor who celebrated Black life feels especially painful.

Posted on September 1, 2020, at 11:33 a.m. ET

Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

It is one thing to grieve a long life lived and a promise fulfilled. It is quite another to be shaken by a life cut short. This weekend, many of us were shocked by the news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died at the age of 43 from colon cancer.

For a brief moment, our feeds were a chorus of heartbreak, a tidal wave of grief as celebrities, politicians, athletes, and layfolks mourned Boseman’s death. In one of the algorithm’s stranger moments, Twitter posted that the message announcing Boseman’s death had broken the record for the most “liked” tweet ever.

We’ve known Boseman for a short time — his breakthrough role as Jackie Robinson in 42 came in 2013, when he was 36 years old, a relatively late start for an actor. But considering the shining hope he brought us, the magnitude of mourning is colossal and logical. “This broke me,” tweeted Issa Rae. Jordan Peele described it as a “crushing blow.” This is not hyperbole: That we have lost a wellspring of Black joy in a year that has already contained so much Black grief feels like a punch on the way down.

Boseman gave an extraordinary performance as the baseball icon. His stoicism and remarkable restraint stole the show. He followed that up with an electric display as James Brown in Get On Up (2014), and a self-assured showing in Marshall (2017) as the famed Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

These are, on their face, unusual choices for an actor establishing his presence. Three biopics in five years? Did Boseman want to be known as the biopic guy? Sure, it’s a respected genre, but isn’t that limiting yourself?

It made it all the more fascinating when he landed the role of a Black superhero in the massive Marvel machinery: Boseman made his first appearance as T’Challa/Black Panther in a Captain America sequel, before starring in his own Black Panther movie in 2018.

Beyond its outstanding reviews, beyond even the Best Picture nomination (a first for a superhero movie), Black Panther came to represent a defining point for Black America, a purposeful showcase of Blackness. The film’s machinery subverted the white gaze that Black people had so often been depicted through in film. Instead, the movie gave us endless Black possibilities.

Black Panther, with Boseman as its face, felt particularly poignant because of how much dignity was afforded to Blackness in a moment when Blackness has continually been under assault on screens. On our phone screens, we see images of violence on Black bodies shared carelessly, forced into our feeds, igniting and reigniting trauma. Even now, we watch the body count of an insidious virus exacting a disproportionately higher toll on Black people.

Hell, even in moments where Blackness is celebrated, there are myriad indignities that Black people contend with. How many times have we seen accomplished photographers fail to capture Black subjects? But not in Black Panther. Director Ryan Coogler organized a feast for the eyes: a range of brown skins glowing beautifully; hair so intentionally styled, from dreadlocks and micro braids to perfect fades; an elaborate kingdom that references endless flavors of Blackness. And at the center of it all stood Boseman as King T’Challa, who became the point of fixation for thousands of Black children who never had a Black superhero to look up to.

He was in the business of Black celebration, and through his career, a preacher of Black excellence.

Black dignity requires a forceful intention to manifest on the screen. Black Panther showcased Blackness in all its glory, and Boseman became its symbol. In an emotional letter published in Variety on Sunday, Coogler tells the story of how it was Boseman who suggested Wakandans dance during their coronations: “If they just stand there with spears, what separates them from Romans?” he told Coogler. Such was his attention to mythology.

When I watch endless videos of Boseman doing the Wakanda greeting, I see that he understood the yearning for mythology among Black people — mythology that is very specifically ours. He understood the significance of Black Panther: “This experience is an opening for people’s consciousness. Their boundaries should be shaken and moved,” he said. He quenched a thirst for mythology by so ably playing Jackie Robinson and James Brown and Thurgood Marshall and then he built an entire well with Black Panther in hopes that we may never be parched again.

Valerie Macon / Getty Images

Chadwick Boseman arrives for the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, in Hollywood, California.

With Black Panther, it became clear that Boseman was going for a specific kind of through line in his filmography — a thread asking: Who are your heroes? In a decade when screens reflected Black death, he transformed our screens as a place to convey healing. I imagine he wanted a record of different possibilities for Black life, something rooted in activism, resistance, and dignity. To concern yourself with who your heroes are is to construct a story about who you are. Boseman transformed himself into a portal for these questions. He was in the business of Black celebration, and through his career, a preacher of Black excellence.

I get emotional watching videos encapsulating what Black Panther meant to Black people. For what it’s worth, Boseman knew it. And he reveled in it. It frequently moved him to tears.

So what do you do when a mainstay of Black joy is extinguished? You cry out. Unable to gather in the streets to hug each other, people organized communal viewings of Black Panther, so that they could feel held by each other’s griefs.

I found out about Boseman’s death from a text message from a Black friend checking in on me. As I have too many times since this pandemic began, I turned to social media to take in the grief of other Black people, and commune with it. We can’t grieve together in person right now, but on social media, I saw thousands of posts celebrating Boseman with the Black Panther salute, “Wakanda Forever.” Digitally, we became witness to each other’s grief.

I thought about that phrase again and again and namely, why it feels so resonant. In November of 2019, Boseman appeared on The Breakfast Club, where he was asked if he ever gets tired of doing the “Wakanda Forever” greeting. His reply, brimming with charm and a sly smile, was that he never tires of doing it, but “I get upset when people want me to do it like I’m tap-dancing… I’m not tap-dancing for you.” His face turned serious as he continued, “No. It’s a salute. So if you do it to me, I do it back to you.” Charlamagne tha God pointed out that he must have different reactions to Black people greeting him with the salute and to white people saying, “Hey, do the Wakanda thing!” Boseman responded, “Exactly.”

Boseman’s tragically short career will now be defined by Black Panther. But do not mistake short for evanescent. Boseman seemed to graciously accept the greeting, particularly from Black people, because he knew how much it meant to have something unifying to tether us to each other. It occurred to me that this is precisely the function of royalty, such is the use of a king: to be a beacon, a shared fixed point on the horizon. The king may be dead. But long live the king.●

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