As real-life giants or a fantasy superhero, Chadwick Boseman commanded the screen

The powerful actor, who died Friday at 43, did much of his best work after his undisclosed diagnosis of Stage III colon cancer.

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Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, center) prepares for battle in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

Marvel Studios

Set aside for a moment Chadwick Boseman’s groundbreaking, historic portrayal of T’Challa/Black Panther and consider the incredible versatility he showed in a trilogy of period-piece biopics across a four-year period, becoming Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013), James Brown in “Get on Up” (2014) and a young lawyer who would become the first Black Supreme Court justice in “Marshall” (2017).

Big screen, big-time star performances, one and all. Boseman disappeared into three very different characters who left indelible impressions on the American landscape in the 20th century and beyond. We believed Boseman as Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, playing his Hall of Fame-level game with grace and fire while enduring grotesquely ugly racism from opposing fans, opponents and even some teammates. We believed Boseman performing James Brown’s signature moves and capturing Brown’s destructive madness in “Get on Up.” We believed Boseman as the confident and talented and dedicated young Thurgood Marshall circa 1940 — an NAACP lawyer defending persons of color wrongly accused of crimes, telling one clients’ family, “We’ve got weapons we didn’t have before. We’ve got the law.” He created fully realized, authentic characterizations without indulging in impersonation.

Boseman could also command the screen in a crusading antihero cop role, as he did in “21 Bridges,” and in a supporting performance, as evidenced by his dynamic and pivotal work in “Da 5 Bloods.” Perhaps because he was such a force as a dramatic actor, there isn’t a whole lot of comedy on his resume, but let’s not forget how he could deftly handle moments of light comedy in the Marvel movies, not to mention his flat-out hilarious turn as T’Challa playing “Black Jeopardy” on “Saturday Night Live,” who figures out the correct response when the setup is, “Your Friend Karen Brings HER Potato Salad to YOUR Cookout.” The comedic timing is impeccable!

The “SNL” episode in question originally aired on April 7, 2018 — two years after Boseman was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. Revisiting the sketch, you can see Boseman was thin, but not alarmingly so. Two years later, in April of 2020, Boseman posted a video to his Instagram account that touched off rampant speculation as to why his appearance had changed so drastically. “His weight loss is due to one of his recent [film] projects,” was the hypothesis on one movie website.

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Boseman never publicly discussed his illness or the treatments he was receiving. In the period AFTER his diagnosis, he filmed “Marshall,” “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “21 Bridges,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and the upcoming Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s stage drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, playing the trumpeter Levee opposite Viola Davis, who is portraying the legendary Chicago recording artist from the 1920s. (Boseman was also set to star in the true story of a 16th century Black Samurai in “Yasuke” and had begun prepping for the role, but filming had yet to commence.)


Chadwick Boseman as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall.”

Open Road Films

During Boseman’s illness, we saw pictures of him meeting with children with cancer, but he never drew attention to his own battle. In a Sirius/XM press interview in 2018 while promoting “Black Panther,” Boseman talked about two young cancer patients who had recently passed away: “Throughout our filming, I was communicating with them, knowing they were both terminal. … They were trying to hold on until this movie comes, and … you hear that and say, ‘I gotta get up and go to the gym, I gotta go to work, I gotta learn these lines, I gotta work on this accent. …’ It’s a humbling experience because you think, ‘This can’t mean that much to them,’ but seeing how this movie has taken on a life of its own, I realize they anticipated something great.”


Chadwick Boseman poses with a photo of Jackie Robinson at the 2013 premiere of “42.”

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Non-spoiler alert: “Black Panther” was indeed “something great.” It’s one thing for a superhero origins story to join the ranks of the very best entries in the Marvel or any other such universe, with Boseman as the central figure in Ryan Coogler’s lavish and lush and exhilarating epic adventure. It’s something quite else for a film to exceed the enormous expectations preceding its release and to transcend the art of cinema to become a genuinely significant cultural moment. For millions of Black children, they could look up at that magical screen and see a glorious, mighty, powerful, inspirational, comic-book superhero who looked like them — something previous generations, sadly, never experienced. From Coogler’s direction to the amazing ensemble cast to the brilliant technical aspects, there were a myriad of reasons why “Black Panther” was such a global phenomenon — but rarely has a film also depended so much on the lead actor. Boseman gave such a perfectly nuanced and yet passionate performance that he made it impossible to picture another actor in that role. He WAS King T’Challa. He WAS Black Panther.

Chadwick Boseman was a movie star for our times who had the kind of talent that would have made him a movie star in the 1980s or the 1960s. (And well prior to that, with only the lack of opportunities holding him back.) It’s tragic to see him leave this world a half-century too soon, but his legacy as a cinema presence and his grace as a man will shimmer and resonate for a very long time to come.

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