Why the death of Chadwick Boseman hits different. Long live the Black Panther.

When I took a group of inner-city boys to the premier of Black Panther two years ago, I remember seeing their brown faces light up the dark theater. It was the first time many of them had seen a cast of superheroes that looked like them… not a supporting actor, not a B movie, but an honest to god leading hero and star of a billion-dollar franchise. So often seeing people of color as the “other” when portrayed on TV or in movies, these kids saw in themselves something new… they saw royalty. And their king was Chadwick Boseman.

Those kids glowed as they left the cinema yelling “Wakanda Forever!” For weeks after that, we greeted each other in our youth group with the Wakandan folded arms and talked about what we would do if we had access to vibranium. I can only imagine their hearts breaking as mine did when I heard the news Friday; it was just hours after I recorded a podcast about Black identity in the U.S.

In fact, social media was awash with pictures of young boys in tears over the death of their hero. Boseman had touched the lives of millions around the world, both publicly and privately. He spent hours with young cancer patients offering hope and sometimes just helping them through their last days, like one story he shared on Sirius XM about two boys that were trying to just hold onto life until the premier of Black Panther.

Kian Westbrook’s memorial for Chadwick Boseman.

Boseman portrayed several important Black Figures in recent American history: Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall. The latter he filmed after he was diagnosed with colon cancer. In fact, as we watched him the lead the army of Wakanda into battle, first in the Black Panther movie (and then again in the two last Avengers movies) Boseman was battling with the cancer that would eventually take his life.

When asked about accepting the role of T’Challa in the Marvel universe, Boseman replied.

“I asked myself, is this valuable for the world right now? When done right it gives people hope.”

A quiet giant, Boseman was never seen as overtly political, but he was always concerned for social justice. It showed in his choice of roles and such accurate portrayal of those iconic figures. But even in his last tweet before he died, Boseman congratulated Vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris.


So, it was fitting that the day Boseman died coincided with both Jackie Robinson Day (the man who racially integrated major league baseball in the U.S.) and was exactly 57 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington.

In a tweet after news of his passing, President Barack Obama said of Boseman:

“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.”

In fact, Boseman spoke about being Young, Gifted and Black during his acceptance speech for the movie Black Panther at the SAG awards last year.

“We know what it’s like to be a tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above. And that is what we went to work with every day because we knew, not that we would be around during awards season and that it would make a billion dollars, but we knew that we had something special that we wanted to give the world. That we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing. That we could create a world that exemplified a world that we wanted to see.”

Black Panther would not just be seen as a “Black movie” but instead a movie of universal appeal that featured a mostly Black cast. And its message seems as current as ever as it grapples with the Black experience in the U.S. while lauding Black excellence and the beauty of the African continent.

Boseman joins actors like Heath Ledger and Paul Walker who died so young and at the height of their careers. But the fact that Boseman suffered quietly for the last four years says so much about his humility and perseverance. I remember seeing Boseman on HBO’s “The Shop” with Lebron James and thinking he did not look well. Little did I know this would be one of his last public appearances.

Still, Boseman was no stranger to struggle. In his commencement speech in 2018 at Howard University, his alma matter, Boseman shared what he overcame in the world of acting.

“When I dared to challenge the system 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, the path to my destiny.”

2020 has hit hard with so much premature death: the hundreds of thousands from the current pandemic, to accidents like the death of Kobe Bryant, and also the killings of unarmed Black people by police… but Chadwick’s passing hit different. In the words of Black Panther Director Ryan Coogler, “I have to reckon with the fact that Chad is an ancestor now. And I know that he will watch over us, until we meet again.” Rest in power, King.