Back in early 2018, shortly after Black Panther hit theaters, Chadwick Boseman played a prank on his fans. The staff of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon coaxed some unsuspecting moviegoers into a special room, where they were told they could record a video of them gushing about the actor and what his work meant to them, all while addressing the film’s poster. Each person was eventually interrupted by Boseman himself, who emerged from behind a red curtain, to joyful shocks and shrieks.
Boseman was like that. More than most actors, he really enjoyed interacting with fans, generously giving his time, letting them know he appreciated their love. Of course, in the last few months, clips like the Fallon video have taken on added meaning. After Boseman died in late August — suddenly, prematurely, at only 43 years old, of an illness he had somehow kept private, known only to family and close friends — they revealed someone worried he didn’t have much time left. They show someone devoting his life to goodness and decency.
Chadwick Boseman was a great actor, and the loss we face from his passing — further stressed by the new August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — is incalculable. He was also a great human being — a gregarious do-gooder who treated fans and colleagues alike as he wanted to be treated. And as a result, he was treated in kind.
It’s easy to paint Boseman as bigger-than-life. When Spike Lee needed someone to play the almost messianic slain soldier in his Vietnam War epic Da 5 Bloods, he turned to Chadwick Boseman. “This character is heroic; he’s a superhero,” Lee told The Atlantic. “Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa. Chad is a superhero.” (He was referring to Boseman’s turns in, respectively, 42, Get On Up, and Marshall.) In death, Boseman has become almost mythic. His hometown of Anderson, South Carolina was quick to start building a statue of him. The final tweet on his Twitter account, breaking the news of his passing in late August of 2020, stands as the most liked in history, pushing Barack Obama to a distant second.
Boseman earned that mystique. Upon his passing, untold stories of his kindness flooded the internet. Some of those good deeds he did in public. When he won the Best Hero for Black Panther at the MTV Movie Awards, he gave the trophy to James Shaw, Jr., who had stopped a near-shooting at a Tennessee Waffle House. “Receiving an award for playing a superhero is amazing,” he said, “but it’s even greater to acknowledge the heroes that we have in real life.”
But many of those deeds were private and didn’t come to the public eye until after his death. One such story involved him being approached by a young, aspiring actor. Boseman spoke with him for over a half-hour, giving him advice on how to navigate Hollywood as a black actor, even buying him plays that had inspired him at his age.
30 mins later, they are still chatting. Chadwick taking the time to give this guy advice, speaking to what’s it’s like to be a black man in this industry, how to navigate it. The actor thanks him for his time and continues looking for books.
— Trevor Reece (@trevorcopter) August 29, 2020
He didn’t want thanks. He just wanted to make sure this young man was taken care of and had access to resources he would need to succeed. Chadwick Boseman was the King of Wakanda. He was James Brown and Jackie Robinson. But above all that, he was a good man.
— Trevor Reece (@trevorcopter) August 29, 2020
Boseman knew all too well about Hollywood’s long history of putting black actors in boxes, that only a few, if any, have ever been handed the keys to the city. As his star rose, he didn’t quiet down. He spoke up, as when he was promoting Marshall in 2017:
“There was a period of time where it was Sidney Poitier is the guy. And very often, people will come to me or some of the other guys that are doing well right now and they say, ‘They’re going to pass the torch to you.’ And I don’t think that’s right, because it’s possible for there to be a Chris Pine, or a Chris Evans and Chris O’Donnell and a Chris Hemsworth and all the other Chrises, but it can only be one of us at a time? That is part of what’s wrong.”
Boseman became famous for delivering impassioned speeches that encouraged others to try and effect change in the industry. When speaking at his alma mater, the historically black Howard University, in 2018, he described the difficulties he faced when he “dared to challenge the system that dared to relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical background, no hopes or talents.” At the 2019 SAG Awards, he didn’t hold back either:
“We all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured, yet you are young, gifted, and black. We know what it’s like to be told there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for to be featured on … And that is what we went to work with everyday … we knew not that we would be around during award season or that it would make a billion dollars, but we knew that we had something special that we wanted to give the world.”
For Boseman it wasn’t enough to be famous, to be considered a great actor. Like those that preceded him, he wanted to help make it easier for other black performers to make a mark on the business and on the culture. He fought to make sure Black Panther wasn’t whitewashed, stricken of its blackness, its African-ness. Marvel pushed back when he insisted that T’Challa and his fellow Wakandans spoke with an accent inspired by Xhosa, one of the official languages of Zimbabwe and South Africa. They worried, he told The Hollywood Reporter, that that might be “too much for an audience to take.” But he held his ground. “It felt to me like a deal-breaker,” he said. “I was like, ‘No, this is such an important factor that if we lose this right now, what else are we gonna throw away for the sake of making people feel comfortable?”
That’s why Black Panther resonated — because it didn’t soften the blow. And that’s why its impact could be felt immediately. The day after it hit theaters, Boseman was at an NBA game, where he gave Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo a Black Panther mask. Oladipo put it on and, in the guise of T’Challa himself, proceeded to perform a slam dunk. At that moment it felt like black culture was fully at the center of the culture. You could see it in videos of black moviegoers going to screenings in African garb. And you could see it in heartwarming videos of kids, who got to see themselves onscreen, who had a superhero who looked like them.
He demands an answer you two… pic.twitter.com/m7qH4OgA1N
— mArz TiON (@Venom2627) October 19, 2017
Boseman was the star of Black Panther, but he made sure it wasn’t the Chadwick Boseman Show. He surrounded himself with many great black actors from his generation: Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, and more. There was the older guard, too: Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker — actors who paved the way for Boseman and for Black Panther. Boseman was a most generous actor. He didn’t hog the spotlight. He made room for others to shine alongside him, and he was at his best when he was playing against others who were as talented as he was. If he was making it, he was bringing everyone along with him.
That Boseman kept his illness under wraps, hiding his struggles with pancreatic cancer even as he made strenuous action films, was a natural extension of that generosity. On one hand, he apparently thought he could beat it and be ready for Black Panther 2. On the other, he wanted to be an example of strength, of grace and humility. In retrospect, you can see the signs. He cryptically alluded to his cancer battles to the press more than once.
Perhaps his malady motivated him to get in touch with younger fans fighting their own illnesses. After Boseman’s death, it was revealed that he’d visited terminally ill children in New Zealand. Then there was the time he broke down during a Black Panther interview, talking about two kids with whom he’d been in touch and who’d recently passed away from cancer. When Boseman himself passed on, a father of one of those children shared a video Boseman had sent them.
This is the first message Chadwick Boseman sent to my son in 2017. He had already been diagnosed with colon cancer, unknown to anyone. Amazing. pic.twitter.com/2Tb4V2O8bN
— Brian Hammond (@_Bro_Hamm_) August 29, 2020
One of the most gutting examples of Boseman’s generosity was a video from 2019, when he presented Denzel Washington with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Boseman told a story: When he was young and not particularly moneyed, he was one of a number of students at Howard who received a generous grant to attend a midsummer acting program at Oxford University. Some of that money, he later learned, came from Denzel Washington.
“Imagine receiving the letter that your tuition for that summer was paid for and that your benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet,” Boseman told the crowd. He then got very serious. And as the normally cucumber cool Washington visibly held back tears, Boseman paid tribute to an industry legend whose generosity changed his life.
“An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith. There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington. And not just because of me, but my whole cast, that generation, stands on your shoulders. The daily battles won, the thousand territories gained, the many sacrifices you made for the culture on film sets of your career, the things you refused to compromise along the way, lay the blueprints for us to follow. So now let he who has watered be watered. Let he who has given be given to.”
No doubt Boseman was hoping one day he’d be holding back tears as a younger actor said something similar to him. Perhaps that Jimmy Fallon video, the one of him surprising fans, was his way of getting that honor prematurely — of seeing his own funeral, to hear what people said about him, much like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn perched in the church rafters. At the time, only a select few knew what it really meant to him to hear fans sing his praises to his face. But hopefully he knew, in his final moments, that he would be forever remembered as someone who not only gave but who inspired young actors to do the same.