It’s hard not to lionize (pantherize?) Chadwick Boseman as we process our grief after his tragic and unexpected death on Friday.
Yes, he was a movie star. But he was more than that. He was also one of those rare celebrities who actually used his platform to do genuine good in the world. This was especially true after Black Panther turned him into a superstar.
Marvel’s 2018 hit quickly established itself as a groundbreaking film in cinema. It’s a multi-million dollar blockbuster from a major studio that features a mostly-Black cast in a story that, through its main villain and its portrayal of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, centers racial issues.
The incredible critical and financial success of Black Panther catapulted Boseman into a level of superstardom that few celebrities will ever achieve. And at pretty much every documented turn, he carried that like it was a responsibility rather than a gift.
1. An NBA slam dunk moment
In 2018 on Feb. 17, one day after Black Panther hit theaters, Boseman attended an Indiana Pacers game with co-star Michael B. Jordan. When Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers approached the two courtside actors, Boseman handed him a Black Panther mask. The two exchanged the crossed-arms Wakandan salute, after which Oladipo donned the mask and performed a flashy slam dunk.
The moment represented more than one celebrity interacting with another celebrity in a photo opp. The whole interaction spoke directly to Black Panther‘s mainstreaming of Black culture. Wakanda may not be a real place, but the mutual salute between the two men amounted to an implicit acknowledgment of Black Panther‘s importance and impact even in the earliest hours of its success.
2. Greeting fans in person, as a surprise
If you keep tabs on social media then you already know this one’s been making the rounds.
Boseman and Fallon acted on a diabolically delightful plan for the Black Panther star’s Feb. 2018 late night appearance. The setup saw fans of the movie being escorted into a room where they could address a monitor that was recording their messages for Boseman. Or so they thought.
In actuality, Boseman was hidden away just behind a nearby curtain, listening to everything and barging in – to the absolute delight of each fan – at the end of a message. His friendly and playful interactions with regular people says plenty, but the messages themselves resonate as well as a reflection of what Boseman’s headlining role in one of the all-time great Hollywood franchises means to the world as a whole and to Black people specifically.
3. Commencement speech at Howard University
Just a couple weeks after the April 2018 release of Avengers: Infinity War, Boseman returned to his HBCU alma mater, Howard University, to deliver a commencement speech. During the speech, the actor praised the power of protest as he spoke about his own experiences as a student who pushed the university to do better.
The remarks were especially notable coming just a month after Howard students protested to demand more housing for younger students, the disarming of campus police, more concrete action in sexual assault cases, and limits on tuition increases.
“The fact you have struggled with this university you’ve loved is a sign you can use your education to improve the world you are entering,” Boseman said at the time. By all appearances, he lived that truth every day in his public life as a celebrity.
4. He gave away his MTV award to an IRL hero
In June 2018, almost two months after James Shaw, Jr. acted heroically to shut down a near-shooting at a Tennessee Waffle House, Boseman made a beautiful gesture. When he stepped up to the MTV stage to accept the award for “Best Hero” at the annual MTV Movie Awards, he switched things up.
“Receiving an award for playing a superhero is amazing, but it’s even greater to acknowledge the heroes that we have in real life,” Boseman said before introducing Shaw and calling him up to the podium. Then, he handed Shaw his trophy. “This is gonna live at your house,” Boseman said.
5. He fought to keep imperialism out of Black Panther
The accent you hear from Wakandan natives is inspired by Xhosa, one of the official languages in South Africa and Zimbabwe. That’s not the sound Marvel had originally envisioned for its Wakandan characters, however.
In the late summer of 2018, Boseman discussed Black Panther‘s vocal inflections during an appearance on The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. There, he revealed that Marvel had at first given him a choice between a British or American accent. But Boseman pushed back, advocating for the Xhosa accent he’d been working on with dialect coach Beth McGuire, and which had been inspired by T’Chaka actor John Kani’s own South African heritage. (T’Chaka is the father of Boseman’s T’Challa in the MCU.)
According to Boseman, Marvel felt that Xhosa might be “too much for an audience to take.” And Boseman didn’t like that. “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?”
6. His 2019 SAG Awards speech
“To be young, gifted, and Black. 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, to say there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on. We know what it’s like to be the 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.”
7. His everyday efforts to uplift those around him
Twitter anecdotes always need to be taken with a grain of salt. But there’s no reason to think this Los Angeles-based artist’s firsthand account is anything other than what he’s describing.
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
8. Just stuff like this in general
One of the most talked about aspects of Black Panther is how it gives Black children (and really, all children) a heroic role model to admire who falls outside the traditional (read: whitewashed) Hollywood mold. The movie’s existence is evidence of an ongoing shift that’s gripped Hollywood in recent years, yes, but Boseman leaned in.
Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman. We had far too little time to spend with your talents and your goodwill, but it was a gift all the same. You will be missed.