The Loss of a Hero On-Screen and Off: Chadwick Boseman’s Contribution to Film

Chadwick Boseman, an award-winning actor and a playwright, recently passed away. Most people knew him as the fictional character Black Panther, but he was a real-life warrior as well. Boseman fought for proper representation of Black people in the media; characters who would embody the community’s complexity and significance. Like the people he portrayed, he himself was a hero in the battle for racial justice.

Boseman is best known for his role as T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, in the Marvel film Black Panther. However, he has also portrayed many other hugely important historical figures, such as the first Black Supreme Court Justice and the first Black Major League Baseball player. In the film 42, Boseman played Jackie Robinson, the first person to break the color barrier in baseball — after more than 50 years of segregation — by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the film Get on Up, he had the role of James Brown, a singer who fought racism and encouraged Black pride through his music. And in Marshall, he acted as Thurgood Marshall, who won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the US Supreme Court — including Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. 

Although Boseman brought to life many heroes on film, he himself was a hero in the battle against stereotypes, fighting for adequate representation of Black Americans. Early in his career, he auditioned for a soap opera on a major network, landed the role, and was promised a high salary. But when he read the script, he felt “conflicted,” as many of the Black characters perpetuated negative stereotypes, being “criminals, on drugs, and deadbeat parents.” He decided to ask the executives of the show questions about his character’s background, and suggested that they come up with something positive to add dimension to the character. The next day, he was fired from the show. In his commencement speech at Howard University in 2018, he said, “sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it. When I dared to challenge the systems that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me; a path to my destiny.” Although he lost that job, his courage to fight for his convictions forged a new path.

On the big screen, Boseman portrayed legendary figures who fought for justice — and won — whether on the baseball field, stage, or in the courtroom. He seemed in many ways larger than life, which made it all the more shocking when he died at the early age of 43. On Friday, August 28, Boseman died of colon cancer, a disease which he had been quietly battling for four years.

The heartbreaking loss of Boseman continues to be mourned by many, ranging from celebrities to young children. Barack Obama tweeted about his death, saying, “Chadwick came to the White House to work with kids when he was playing Jackie Robinson. You could tell right away that he was blessed. To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain — what a use of his years.” Boseman was incredibly popular among children, who idolized his character, T’Challa, and wanted to be exactly like him. They dressed up as Black Panther for Halloween, hung posters of him in their rooms, displayed Black Panther action figures, and even had pillowcases and bed sheets branded with his face. Black Panther, the first Marvel movie with a Black superhero as the lead role, gave children everywhere the hope that they could become anything, despite any obstacles that stood in their way.

His loss is even more poignant now, when many are marching in the streets to protest systemic racism and police brutality. Through his films, Boseman demonstrated again and again the strength and pride of the Black community. Not only was he a talented actor, but he gave the world so many powerful role models. Chadwick Boseman may not be with us, but his films continue to inspire and teach us every day.

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