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Goodbye to a King: On the Death of Chadwick Boseman

We asked our writers to share anything they wanted about the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, star of “Black Panther,” “42,” “Marshall,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and more. To say his career was only getting started would be a massive understatement. We send our deepest condolences to his friends and family. The world doesn’t feel quite the same without him. And please read our longer tribute by Odie Henderson here.


Potential is an undefined destination. We can say we like or admire this actor or that actor, but it’s mostly hope that we wrap up in the word potential, the hope that someone we enjoy watching will keep entertaining us long into the future. It’s a hope not just for quality work but the longevity to see it through. However, sometimes this unknowable future feels downright absolute. Sometimes it feels like you can see multiple blockbusters, major awards, and essential roles when you close your eyes. You can see the actor becoming the inspiration; the newcomer becoming the mentor. You can see the influence he will have beyond acting as he elevates voices within his community. And it’s all laid out in front of not just him, but the world. And then it’s just gone. All of it torn away. The destination is no longer on the map. That’s how it feels to lose Chadwick Boseman. It feels against nature, like a road we’re all on together that’s just suddenly no longer there. We feel like something impossible has happened. The road is gone. We will find another one, but it won’t be the same. Because we won’t be going to the same place anymore. And where we’re going to end up just doesn’t seem as clear as it did before.


A king. It truly felt like that. Like this guy was ordained the minute he started appearing in high profile parts. His trickster god in “Gods of Egypt” is the only one who looks and acts the part. His Jackie Robinson was too nobly written but that performance is just a perfect play, stolen bases and a slide into home plate. It's slicker and bigger than the movie it's in. That was Boseman; he slipped through movies that didn't know how to use him. He was too often saddled with directors who didn't know how to handle someone with a Pacino-style immediacy and improvisatory body language. They thought they were getting a statue, and they got a man. He refused greatness with a movement of his eyebrows. His men were men, they weren't icons or standees. He let his beautiful face and perfect body blind you while he worked on your mind. That smile, those eyes. Just a born star with a character actor's intelligence.

It's James Brown, though, that's the performance I'll never forget. He gets the moves and the voice and that halting and singular chemistry—gets it all like he was born to do it. Director Tate Taylor saddles him with an extremely strange monologue that could have unseated a less confident actor, a speech about a toilet while he's holding gun. There's maybe no more gripping piece of acting for the screen since 2014. It shouldn't work and Boseman makes it immortal. John Dahl directed him in an episode of “Justified,” introducing him in the front seat of an SS Camaro, looking like the coolest man alive. His diction just slithers out of him. He acts opposite Larenz Tate, a pro, and just dances all around him. He stares from a hundred miles back. "I conversate best when I'm nice and relaxed." Every line reading is perfect and memorable. "Yeah, man. Shut up. Go play Donkey Kong." He's on the episode for about a sixth of its runtime and he acts like he's the lead in a John Singleton movie. "I was supposed to be a magician. You Dick!" Unreal. Funny and chilling. A little one act Falstaff. Spike Lee knew he was the king, gave him his most iconic role just before we lost him. But we didn't lose him. We'll be hearing him act in our heads forever. Long live the king.


There aren’t too many actors working today whose mere presence in a movie serves as an assurance it will be worth seeing. For me, Chadwick Boseman was one of those actors. Last year, when this site assigned me to review “21 Bridges,” the police thriller in which Boseman stars—and which he also co-produced—I admit I had actually been intrigued by the premise its trailer put forth. I like crime movies and this seemed to have potential. But we all know how trailers can deceive, so I took it with a grain of salt. All the while thinking, “Well, if nothing else, it has Chadwick Boseman going for it.” And he did, as performer and producer, bring a dimension of thoughtfulness to that movie that would not have been there without him. His portrayal of the lead role, chasing after some cop killers whose actions turn over the secrets of massive corruption within supposed “law enforcement,” makes a potent statement, without being didactic about it, illuminating the terrifying paradox that just being a black policeman in America embodies.

Similarly, the one-two punch of Boseman and Michael B. Jordan and “Black Panther” makes that movie, to my mind, the one picture that a non-MCU fan can profitably sit through more than once. The fact that he could not just credibly but utterly convincingly portray both James Brown and Jackie Robinson, two heroes with almost directly opposed temperaments, is also amazing. And last night, learning of his struggle, I was awed by his personal bravery. I send my prayers of condolence to his family.

By my lights—and forgive me showing my age as such—American cinema hasn’t suffered such a catastrophic loss since Carole Lombard died in a plane crash at age 33.


It's impossible to calculate the impact Chadwick Boseman had on not just popular culture, but generations of children and adults who were clamoring to see themselves represented on screen. In just seven short years, he managed to fill the shoes of so many Black icons—James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson (on whose day Boseman passed)—each time going beyond impersonation to embody the essence of these men in all their power and vulnerability. And in T'Challa, he built a superhero who modeled an ideal of a Black culture untouched by centuries of colonialism and slavery.

In "42," Boseman's Jackie Robinson tells Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey, "You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.” In role after role, Boseman gave us the guts in ways we'll not see the likes of again. He was a powerful actor, one with the rare burden and privilege of being aspirational to so many—not just for who he represented, but for the strength by which he represented them.


Chadwick Boseman had just played Jackie Robinson in “42” the first time I interviewed him, and he still seemed a little bit surprised by the direction his career was taking. He told me he only took an acting class to help him understand how better to communicate with actors and what they would need from him as a writer and a director. He pursued acting but he always brought the writer/director perspective to his roles, the focus always on the story as a whole, all of the details of the setting and time and the other characters as well as his own. He told me about how adapting to the old-style baseball equipment, the heavier bats that affected his swing, the cleats that, months after the movie wrapped, he could still feel. "I would get up in the morning even three or four months after we were done and I would still feel like I had cleats on. It was like running on nails.” He loved the way literally stepping into Jackie Robinson’s shoes helped inform the way he walked and ran. I next talked to him about playing a young Thurgood Marshall in a courtroom drama here; as in the real-life case, Marshall was not allowed to speak. He said,

When I got to that point in the script, I was like, “Wait, I thought I was going to play Thurgood Marshall. I thought I was going to have all these great speeches and closing statements and I'm going to be gagged? Wait a minute!” I almost called Reggie to say, “How am I going to do this?” He reminded me of that moment in “Shakespeare in Love” when Mercutio said, “Wait a minute, I thought I was the lead.”

Then a few pages later it became, “Oh, this is why you do the movie.” Because this is the challenge. This was his challenge and this is my challenge, so I’m going to learn the most about this man by dealing with the challenges as the actor the same way he did as an attorney. The question is, first: how do I as the actor play the lead of the movie when I can’t talk? And then second: how do I win this case from the sidelines?

So it became a thing of, “Oh, you're coach or you’re the catcher who is giving the signals to the pitcher.” It was an extraordinary moment for me because I thought about so many moments where black people have played in the background and white people who took the credit. And I was like, that's actually an interesting story to expose through Thurgood Marshall. So it became a beautiful film experience. It became “Here's this guy who doesn't know how to argue a criminal case and now I'm going to show him how to do it.” That's a beautiful film moment that you wouldn't expect. So it became, “Okay, well now I've got to at least talk to Reggie about this film because it has a conceit that makes this film interesting.”

Chadwick Boseman was a magnetic presence on screen. But his great gift was using that quality on behalf of the larger-than-life characters he played, the historical heroes and the Marvel superhero, always making his performances about their essential humanity, making their reality authentic and relatable.


A lot of us first saw Chadwick Boseman during his portrayal of baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 2013's “42,” but I remember fully getting the sense that Boseman was going to be legendary when watching him talk on the phone throughout Ivan Reitman’s “Draft Day.” In the 2014 film, Boseman plays Cleveland Browns prospect Vontae Mack, a character inspired by countless athletes who try to get billion-dollar franchises to see what they see in the mirror. It’s a rich performance we only get limited time with, and yet Boseman conceals a great deal of power within this character. For a movie about up-and-comers hitting the big league, Boseman’s brimming confidence as Vontae is its magnetic secret weapon.

Boseman spends much of his screen-time in "Draft Day" on the phone, talking to Kevin Costner on the other half of the split-screens that Reitman uses to energize his dialogue-heavy film. In his first call opposite Costner’s Browns general manager Sonny, Boseman displays a far different physicality than his Robinson role, with a smooth Virginia accent, a spike of comic timing, and a commanding self-certainty. The competitive nature of the game leads Sonny to favor a player named Bo Callahan, and Vontae's later phone call with Sonny is of a different intensity: Boseman has a cool frustration as he suggests sternly to rewatch his game footage, like trying to save Sonny from making the grave mistake of underestimating him. While speaking with such urgent assurance, Boseman’s elbow bleeds over into Costner’s half of the screen; the camera then pushes in on Boseman, making him appear bigger and bigger, dominating the total frame. You can’t box in someone like this.  

Off-screen, Boseman was initially hesitant about being in another sports movie. No one could blame him for that worry—a lot of rising actors could easily be typecast playing two athletes back to back. But this was Boseman, and "Draft Day" was the beginning of never underestimating him. As Vontae, Boseman affirmed just how intricate his portrayals of confident, grounded Black men could be, and would be in future roles. We knew from that first call in "Draft Day" that Vontae was a mega talent, because the chameleonic actor playing him was clearly going to be one. 


In a year as full of loss and anger as 2020, the death of Chadwick Boseman seems unnaturally cruel, like a fluke in the karmic odds. But I think back to when I saw "Black Panther" at a sold out screening in Chicago, where men and women of every creed and color cheered as though they were at a stadium concert. In large part, it was because of him. It was a moment, one I have always felt lucky and moved to be a part of. In interviews, he manifested humility and grace, and on the screen, gravitas and sincerity. He had a rare gift; when he was on screen, as though it were involuntary, you were on his side. I was on his side. Likewise, when "Avengers: Endgame" screenwriters Markus and McFeely picked which superhero to first enter from screen left and save the day, they knew no Avenger would be as persuasively reassuring to the audience as Boseman’s Black Panther T’Challa. Crowd reaction videos went viral, and I cheered with them. You probably did too.

Both experiences were deeply moving, not only for what it meant for the necessity of representation, but for an amazing screen talent who inspired me and me least of all. Rewatching this scene, it now has new meaning. Like Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia rescuing herself from death in outer space in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," King T’Challa walking through a circling orange portal, resurrected, is a moment of tragic wish fulfillment. And yet, T’Challa’s return is also a beautiful tribute and celebration of all we have come to associate with Boseman’s extraordinary but brief body of work. His range, his cool, his power, his courage. With limited screen-time but unlimited charisma, he’s left a legacy that is aspirational and extremely difficult to equal. But I think he’d want us to try. I will miss him and the roles I’ll never see him play, but I will never forget how profoundly he moved me, and the world.


There's a moment in "Black Panther" when Chadwick Boseman, as Wakanda's new king T'Challa, reaches the spiritual plane with his ancestors after a defeat in combat. He's not ready to be there yet, he argues, unable to rest while he has wrongs to right, so much more to do for the nation and people he loves. Hearing about Boseman's death, I feel like he's there again, only we're the ones not ready to see him gone. I'm trying to imagine the incredible fortitude and generosity he mustered to continue working through cancer, turning in such magnetic and nuanced performances that brought Black icons like Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and even T'Challa down to earth. The selfless work he did offscreen to promote these films and others, surprising fans with that radiant smile, and visiting children in hospitals brings me to tears knowing of his private pain. I'm glad that T'Challa lives on, grateful for what Boseman gave us, and so very sad that I won't see what his talents and drive will do next.


To lead by example is not to aim to be irreproachable or holy, but to find, in our inherently flawed existences, the moments, the interactions, the opportunities where we can act with grace to generate good—not only for ourselves but those who might find themselves touched, even changed by our deeds. Chadwick Boseman embodied that selfless intentionality as an actor who chose to make every appearance count, to use the key his talent granted him to open doors, to pursue a path of collective edification over empty fame.

Though admirable, no one should carry the burden of becoming a symbol in an industry where Black and POC artists are so seldom allowed to not think about the larger impact of what they put out into the world. Still, he decided, through the alchemy of his performances, to channel this injustice into purpose. Boseman wasn’t making movies merely for the here and now but for the eternal, for what lasts beyond the body.

His is a catalogue of Black heroes the likes of Jackie Robinson in “42” or James Brown in “Get On Up,” but it’s undoubtedly in personifying T'Challa and the reach and watershed cultural significance of “Black Panther” that the king found his throne. Boseman portrayed a royal soulfulness, which was imperfect but openhearted. He became a Black monarch who first ruled from the screen but soon transcended it. Through him, Wakanda surpassed the realm of fiction and entered our reality.

Everywhere he went was his kingdom, a land governed with kindness and wisdom, and where millions of people who had waited their whole lives to see themselves as the leaders of their own stories finally witnessed it in a magnificent, universal saga of bravery and unity. Movies have the power to immortalize, but it was in the off-screen sharing of that hope for a more luminous future (with devoted fans and the world at large) that Boseman forged his most beautiful legacy—one that can never be diluted.

As the world goes on with one less beacon, may the outpour of memories and tributes remind us that, in our relentlessly heartbreaking reality, some people’s flame radiates so intensely in life that even the afterglow of their physical existence remains inextinguishable. Chadwick Boseman’s shines on, forever.


We backtrack through the years, amazed that this young man made himself such an icon by performing as icons, while this emperor of maladies consumed his precious life from him. How did he do it? How did he do it? What was he thinking in those clips, when he is sitting with children dying from cancer? We wonder in sorrow, realizing that what could have been is no longer meant to be.

Not to minimize any deaths or any suffering, I want to think that there is some noble reason explaining why this world reclaims African Americans in the ways it does. When my social media feed juxtaposes the photo of an young white kid walking past police officers, as though he is carrying Skittles rather than the AR-15 he used to murder, with the photo of King T'Challa, dressed in all white, walking through the Ancestral Plane, and I find myself—as a witness and hopeful ally—grieving for the Boseman family and, yet again, for American Blackness. And to Chadwick, and those who formed you, thank you.


I’ll remember the late Chadwick Boseman as a brilliant on-screen communicator, evidenced most recently by his transcendent performance as Stormin’ Norman in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” Boseman could hypnotize audiences with his presence alone, and then lock into a specific emotion or concept, almost like a therapist leading a patient to clarity. It’s about vocal timing and vocal tone; silence followed by a sense of self-awareness and engagement.

Boseman’s performances feel authentic because he understood his characters beyond the script; a creative approach that’s similar to an author writing a full character profile before writing their actual story.

In every one of Boseman’s undeniably "big" performances—“42,” “Get on Up,” “Black Panther"—there’s always a moment when a big smile contrasts with a solemn gaze, or a moment when a closed-mouth grin complements a look of absolute confidence. Boseman could mix and match different energies to keep the audience off-kilter, and always seemed to be in complete control of his facial muscles.

Boseman cared about the little things that so often go ignored by unengaged performers or casual spectators. He pushed himself to achieve a mental state where he wouldn’t just be “acting” but rather communicating a story with true emotional depth. And that approach seemed to translate to his real-life experiences with colleagues and fans.


Whenever a celebrity passes away I’m always amazed by the number of passionate tributes by writers who can recall every challenge and triumph of said performer’s career. These vivid pieces are usually written by an author whose life overlaps with the arc of their subject. Being 30, I’ve never had the same experience. That is, until Chadwick Boseman’s heartbreaking passing at age 43 from stage-four colon cancer. I was 17 when I first saw him on screen in “The Express.” I witnessed his breakout role as Jackie Robinson in “42”; his generation-defining performance in “Black Panther”; the promise of what was yet to come in “Da 5 Bloods.”

Boseman’s films signaled the critical and box office victories of the Black Cinematic Renaissance. His starring turns and production credits furthered the fight for diversity in front of and behind the camera. They became the definitive milestones of my early life, marking my exploration of Black studies, and my personal journey to find myself as a young adult. More than me, Boseman influenced an entire generation of Black kids and gave them a hero to look up to. It’s the first time many of us can say we’ve witnessed an actor’s every performance, their every challenge and triumph, and that we know their full impact. It's a new pain. And I wish against everything that it wasn't Boseman.


I confess that, for the most part, I am not the biggest fan of superhero movies in general. Most of them essentially boil down to the sight of talented actors running around in goofball outfits spewing boilerplate dialogue and reacting to CGI doodads to be added later with just enough energy and conviction to earn their paychecks. That said, when a great one comes along, I am able to recognize it. I knew almost instantly watching "Black Panther" that this was one of those cases. There are plenty of reasons to admire that film but the most obvious one was the work by Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa.  He found exactly the right note to play the part—heroic without being corny, serious without being portentous, commanding without being overbearing and infused with a humanity that is rare for the genre—and did it so well and with such genuine power that he helped give it a sense of authenticity that I don’t think I had experienced in a superhero movie since I saw Christopher Reeve in the original “Superman” as a child. 

The secret to Boseman’s success as and actor throughout his tragically and unfairly brief career is that he always found the humanity in the roles that he played. He played a number of real-life heroes—Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall—and he dug deeper and managed to present them as recognizable and believable people  instead of the as the unshakable icons that they would become, which is the standard flaw of most biopics. He gave you a real and convincing sense of who those incredibly consequential people really were behind their public personas. Even on the rare occasions when he dipped into junkier material, such as the bizarro fantasy epic “Gods of Egypt” or last year’s cop thriller “21 Bridges,” you never got the sense that he was just going through the motions in a paycheck gig—he was just as committed to those as he was the more respectable projects. (Seriously, he is really good in “Gods of Egypt” despite it being one of the silliest films you will ever see.) In practically everything he did, he brought heroics to a recognizably human level in a way that not only entertained audiences but inspired them as well. That is one of the key reasons, outside of its sheer suddenness, that the announcement of his death came as such a shock to so many people. It is also one of the key reasons why his name and work are going to continue to resonate with and inspire new generations of moviegoers for generations to come. 

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