“I never wanted to act in the first place . . . forget their stories. I can tell my own stories.”
That’s a line from Chadwick Boseman’s Howard University commencement speech in 2018.
Boseman portrayed some of the most impactful people in American History—Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get On Up), and Thurgood Marshall (Marshall). But, his most popular portrayal was of the fictional character T’Challa from Black Panther. I am so thankful that he went on and told more stories, but the character that speaks the loudest now is his very own. Here are a few things that I learned watching his story unfold over these past few years.
Gifts are given to be received and then shared.
As a theater student at Howard University, Boseman and eight others were accepted into a summer acting program at the British Academy of Dramatic Acting in Oxford. His acting teacher and mentor, Phylicia Rashad, asked Denzel Washington to assist her in sending the students, and he privately contributed to this request.
In a tribute to Washington, Boseman recalled this story and went as far to say, “There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington, and not just because of me, but because that whole cast, that generation stands on your shoulders.”
It wasn’t the only time that he received a gift to pass it on.
During a Sirius XM press conference after the Black Panther release, Boseman was overwhelmed with emotion telling the story of two young cancer patients that he kept in contact with during production of the film. Their parents told Boseman that the kids were trying “to hold on ’til this movie comes.” Both children later lost their battles, but their admiration of him, and of his work, was a testimony that was shared around the world.
His celebrity became the vehicle by which he gave himself away. There’s something to learn by his actions, which worked so powerfully in opposition against the profiteering influencer culture that surrounds us.
Influence may superficially be determined by worldly success, by followers, by clicks, by grandeur; it only matters, though, when it comes with a gift of self. When Boseman had a moment to speak publicly, he used it to weep in gratitude over the influence of the Black Panther film; he would thank those that helped him along the way; he quoted Scripture, and he ultimately gave glory to God. Thus he influenced well, and richly. If your influence isn’t used to bring people closer to God or further the Gospel, if it is meant only for yourself and not for the good of others, then it suggests where your influence really comes from.
Everything is grace.
Live and die with dignity.
In a statement from his family, it was revealed that Boseman had been suffering from colon cancer since 2016. Let’s put this in perspective.
If he was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, it means that after his diagnosis he still filmed Marshall, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, and the yet to be released Yasuke and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
His family statement said that all of the filming was done “during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy.”
It also means that as he spoke of the impact of The Black Panther and the children that died battling cancer after waiting for the film to release, he himself was facing a similar battle.
Dignity is afforded to both the living and to those that have died, and Boseman continued to not only persevere through his own pain with dignity but to carry it in such a way that it also gave dignity to his art.
He trusted only those closest to him with his diagnosis while no one else knew of his battle against colon cancer. A simple scroll through his Instagram feed shows the harsh, prying questions of onlookers who noticed his weight loss. Comments range from concern, to disgust with his appearance, to people suggesting that he needed to pack the weight back on. Those comments now serve as a brutal reminder that we never know what battles people are facing in their private lives.
In 2003, Boseman portrayed Reggie Porter Montgomery on All My Children. The character was a young man with a violent streak, enticed by gang involvement. In his Howard commencement speech, Boseman explained that this portrayal seemed to lack hope and that Reggie’s characterization was assumed and not specified. When he questioned the writing, he was let go the next day.
More than a decade later, Boseman went on to play T’Challa from Black Panther. The film was superb. It was beautifully wrought—on the screen, in the story, and through the acting—but the greatest lesson this film taught me is that representation matters.
That earlier small screen gig was taken from Boseman when he questioned the negative, stereotypical portrayal of a young black man, but that principled situation paved the way for him to portray a young black superhero—a positive portrayal for any human person.
And it’s important to have heroes that look like you, whether in the cinema, or in the Church.
A few months ago, I decided to make that a reality for my home. While we had many images of Our Lady (apparitions from many different cultures), I added more images of other saints to our walls. Saints from Africa, Asia, South America, and beyond. I want to make sure that any person that walks into my home is able to see a saint that looks like them. I’ve known that sharing the likeness of God is so important and sharing the various likeness (and differences) of our own humanity are important too. Boseman and Black Panther reinforced that for me and spurred me to action.
Perhaps the greatest lesson Chadwick Boseman gave to all of us, though, has been to model what it looks like to be an ambassador of peace. Facing a grueling treatment and diagnosis, Boseman became within himself a resistance to evil. He didn’t go silently into the dark night. He made art. He created. He built up—adding to, rather than subtracting from. He humbly gave accolades to others, deflecting those directed toward him. His resistance to evil became one of cooperative construction and not destruction. He left the world markedly better for having lived in it and lived in it well.
The fictional world of Black Panther left us with a mantra that means so much for all of us. Crossing your arms across your chest can often signal that one means peace, or alternatively to ask a blessing. Now, it also invokes the hope of a peaceful world, with tradition and progress made by community cooperation. There’s still a lot to learn from Boseman’s art and life. Let’s learn together.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.