Walking into the theatre to see Black Panther in February 2018 was the closest I’d come to going to church since, well, church. Like every Black person I know, I watched it on the big screen multiple times — eight glorious times. Every time, I got to witness the roar of the crowd when Chadwick Boseman first swaggers on screen with King T’Challa’s singular regal intensity. And the deafening cheer every time T’Challa’s signature salute is accompanied by its rebel yell: “Wakanda Forever!” Every time, I watched Black people shuffle out of the theatre in awe of what they had just witnessed: a superhero movie for us, beyond our wildest childhood dreams. A breathtaking answer to our unspoken prayers. Every time, I teared up at the little Black kids dressed in Black Panther costumes, finally able to look up to a hero that looked like them. It never got old. One of the many things I loved about being a fan of Boseman’s Black Panther was that it never seemed to get old for him, either.
Boseman, who tragically died of colon cancer at 43 on Friday, didn’t seem to care about the industry’s antiquated notion that you couldn’t be both a Serious Actor and a superhero. He was too talented for that. He played real-life Black heroes, Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get On Up), and Thurgood Marshall (Marshall), with the same ferocity he approached T’Challa. He portrayed the stories of Black history and the aspirations of mythical Afrofuturism with equal gravitas. As a devoted fan of this man who lived up to the myth of being the King of a Black mecca, it feels urgent and necessary for me to honour how much Boseman cared about being our superhero precisely because of that fact: He was ours. He knew that playing Marvel’s first Black superhero would be his legacy, that it would define his career, and he was more than okay with it. He loved it.
Boseman carried the weight of Black Panther’s importance and what it meant for representation in Hollywood as a badge of honour, instead of a burden.
Boseman never backed away from King T’Challa, his myth-making character. He was never precious about talking about Black Panther, even in interviews for other films. He was too gracious for that. He wasn’t annoyed at the praise heaped on him like he was the hero himself, because he was. He did not approach fame like an irritating distraction from his craft (see Adam Driver re: Star Wars, or forthcoming Batman Robert Pattinson) or treat his Marvel role as a stepping stone to more meaningful work (Chris Evans). Boseman carried the weight of Black Panther’s importance and what it meant for representation in Hollywood as a badge of honour, instead of a burden — even when it came to having to perform on command.
Boseman told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show that sometimes his salute was just more “casual” when it seemed like he was lacking enthusiasm. In an interview with The Breakfast Club, he got more specific: “I don’t get upset when people ask me to do [the Wakanda Salute],” he said. “I get upset when people ask me to do it like I’m tap dancing.” Ah, and there’s the distinction. When white people would ask him to do “the Wakanda thing” on demand, that’s when he wasn’t feeling it. He clarified in another interview that, “As long as you do it right, I don’t have a problem with it. If you do it right, I’ll do it right back to you.”
It would be easy to dismiss Boseman’s reluctance to throw up the salute on a whim for white people as just another celebrity being difficult (like Driver walking out of interviews or refusing to talk about Star Wars), but that negates the fact that Boseman was only wary of doing it because of how much he respects the material. And how much he respects his people. There are so few things that Black people get to have in pop culture that are just ours. In Wakanda, the salute is a sign of respect between a king and his army, a shorthand between a brother and his little sister, and a reminder that this fantastical place brimming with African Blackness is proud of its culture. Of course Boseman would be protective of it.
He took as much care in what he chose to share about his personal life, which was very little. And yet, in the anecdotes rolling in from stylists, journalists, and pretty much anyone he encountered, Boseman was open, kind, and generous. He handled his position as an A-list movie star with the same vulnerability and dignity he brought to his heroic roles. Plus, he maintained his privacy without being an asshole about it. The man was teaching a masterclass on being a celebrity while he was dying. He did that for us, his Black audience, because he knew we needed him. The heroism in his selflessness is astounding.
It’s on display in the images of Boseman visiting children with cancer while he was quietly suffering through his own fight. His warmth never wavered. Or that time he showed up to the NBA dunk contest to hand Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo a Black Panther mask and give the Wakanda salute before his two-handed slam. He showed up for the culture, time and time again. Then there’s the video that has made me weep every time it’s been shared in the past 72 hours: Jimmy Fallon and Boseman surprising unsuspecting fans as they talk to a camera about how much he and Black Panther means to them. “I cannot tell you how much it means to have you step into the role as our king and to be holding it with such grace, and poise, and joy,” one young Black woman says before he envelops her in a hug. We often say that it’s unfortunate that we don’t celebrate Black life enough while it’s here; that we only give people their due once they become a hashtag. This clip radiates joy, but it also is an embodiment of how Boseman was given his flowers while he was still here. I think he knew how much he meant to all of us. In the depths of my grief, that gives me comfort.
Like me, by now you’ve probably taken part in the online ritual that occurs when a beloved famous person dies: we cry, we question whether crying over someone we barely knew is strange, we post our favourite quotes or videos of said celebrity and pour over heartbreaking viral eulogies by the people who did know them best. We mourn as a collective. We wade through the grief together. On any day, when the loss is that of a beloved Black celebrity, the sorrow is that much thicker, like a suffocating fog standing in the way of productivity or levity.
These days, when we’re grieving Black death at the hands of police daily, when a pandemic is disproportionately killing us, and when a racial reckoning is upon us, the pain is at once unbearable and constant and predictable. But there was no way to anticipate the sting of this particular loss. It was shocking because even those closest to him didn’t know of Boseman’s four-year cancer battle, but also because his talent was so abundant, it felt like it would be with us forever.
It would appear that Boseman knew it wouldn’t be. He was diagnosed in 2016, which means he shot Marshall, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, 21 Bridges, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and Netflix’s upcoming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with Viola Davis before he passed. Boseman got sick and he kept working — not leisurely but arduously. He worked like he was running out of time. In his 2018 commencement address at his alma mater, Howard University, Boseman spoke about purpose. “Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you,” he said. “It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your existence is wrapped up in the thing you are here to fulfill.” Those projects Boseman churned out through his illness all shine with purpose. As his Howard classmate and friend, author Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, Boseman was best at “communicating Black humanity through Black heroism.” Every role he took was to uplift Black people and tell our stories. He was here to fulfill that purpose and he did. I am so grateful that he did.
Last week, I found my nephew’s Black Panther action figure under my bed. He had accidentally left it there a few months ago. When I delivered the toy back to the toddler, his face expanded in pure joy. I’ll never forget the look on his face. I thought of Chadwick Boseman in that moment and the gift he gave to my nephew; to little Black boys and girls like him around the world. He is their superhero. He is our King. He may not be with us anymore, but the purpose he fulfilled through his work is, and that is going to be lighting up little faces forever.