Chadwick Boseman broke into movies in 2013, at the age of 35. He was gone only seven years later, at 43. When he died, we all began to tout the majestic array of names among his achievements: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall. Most important, though, is the fictional but — thanks to Boseman — very much living and lived-in T’Challa, king of Wakanda. In the midst of a moment as ideologically fractured as ours, the Black Panther hero is an unlikely unifier in a world beset with chaos. Boseman’s was a strange, wondrous, meteoric career snuffed out; a career that reads, in retrospect, like a political project, an attitude toward history and how we tell it.
Boseman’s approach to performance upended the usual rituals of actorly impersonation. His masculinity was specked with surprising, vulnerable texture while sacrificing none of the strength of mind or character common among the men he portrayed. He practically made a career out of playing historic figures to whom he bore little to no resemblance, and managed, always, to make it not matter. He seemed eager to redirect our attention to what mattered more: not ritually replaying the past, but providing an idea about it and broadening the terms of Hollywood’s expectations for a black actor. It is hard, for this reason, to imagine another like him.
Unlike with other promising black actors of his generation, comparisons to other black men, particularly actors, never made immediate sense. He wasn’t a loose cannon who cleaned up well, à la Wesley Snipes, or a powder keg in wait, like Denzel Washington. He wasn’t as noble as Morgan Freeman at the height of the latter’s career. He was of a class with those men; he wasn’t those men. Rather, his was nobility in another sense — the regal, principled calm of a man who didn’t question whether he deserved to be here. Chadwick Boseman with impostor syndrome? Difficult to imagine.
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