Being an actor is a hard dollar. It is a litany of rejection, of “no thank you” without the “thank you.” It is waking up every day after having been told no and believing that a yes is coming. There are two types, those who are just delusional and those who just need their chance. Chadwick Boseman was the latter and we should all be grateful that he got his chance because he gave us performances that will not only outlive his too short life, but also all of ours.
I would like to be able to explain why some people sparkle on stage and screen and others don’t. I can’t. It is metaphysical magic; it captures us precisely because we can’t explain it. And Boseman had whatever that that elusive thing is in spades. You had to watch him. You can’t teach that, it’s a natural gift that he exuded in every role he played.
Boseman was best known for playing two superheroes, one real and one imagined. Playing Jackie Robinson in “42” Boseman captured the tortured heroism of the first black man in Major League Baseball. He brought through the silver screen the great triumph that was Robinson’s career, but also the toll that blazing that trail took on him. It is an elegant performance worthy of the Hall of Fame baseball star he portrayed. On its own it would cement him as one of the great actors of his generation.
But of course this is not what the Howard University trained actor is best known for. No. He in fact blazed his own trail not unlike Jackie Robinson as the first black actor to star in a Marvel movie as the stand-alone super hero. Black Panther. How complicated and multi-coded those two words have become. But for millions of kids and movie fans, it means one thing; it means a black super hero that belongs to all of us.
This was a performance of a lifetime from an actor taken from us all to soon. His turn in this role that he will define forever was the epitome of grace. Too nice by far was his portrayal of the king of Wakanda until it had to be dirty, and even then, even having vanquished his foe it returned to his natural posture of humility and profound understanding of the human condition. That is what actors do. They understand what drives us, what lies beneath our actions. Boseman held what Shakespeare called the mirror up to nature.
We will not get to see Chadwick Boseman play King Lear, or explore the intricacies of Chekhov and Ibsen. More the pity. But we can celebrate what he left us. The artist does not measure his worth in money or fame. The artist measures it in the impact he has on his audience. Boseman took our breath away, and while he may breath no longer, his portrayal of Black Panther will live forever.
Eulogists more gifted than I am will extol what his performance meant to young black kids, and yes that is true. But my own son, 10 years old, who is not black, found in his performance a man he wants to emulate. Boseman did not give us a black super hero; he gave a super hero. Full stop.
Life and death are capricious in their devastating ways. This thin line of being and experiencing what we perceive as reality is always taken away too fast. We cannot help but think in Boseman’s case it was too fast, that his enormous gifts should have been granted to us longer. It was not to be.
This is a loss. We must let ourselves feel it. It is unfair, it is ugly, it is wrong. But Chadwick Boseman was a great actor. He lived a dream most see extinguished because he was remarkable. Yes, we must mourn his passing, but we must also celebrate what he gave us. He had chops. Anyone who ever stood upon stage knows it and everyone else does too. This is a tough loss. But let us never forget what he did.
He is literally a super hero and he always will be.