It’s both incredible and horrible to think about it, but we only really had Chadwick Boseman for seven years. Boseman came to stardom late. His big break—playing Jackie Robinson in 42—didn’t arrive until he was thirty-six. I suppose we all thought he was younger because he was such a physical specimen. Remarkably fit, distinctively handsome, and wildly talented, it’s hard to believe it took as long as it did for Boseman to break through.
Boseman spent ten years in the wilderness of small film roles and guest spots on television before winning the plum role of the baseball player who broke the color barrier. 42 was a solid hit, and while much of the biopic was by the numbers, Boseman was not. He added a depth and ferocity to the role that wasn’t obvious on the page.
Boseman was so full of youthful exuberance that he passed as a college football star one year later, despite being thirty-seven when Draft Day was released. Here was a person approaching middle age who looked like a man barely able to buy a drink legally.
That same year, Boseman gave a stunning performance as James Brown in Get On Up. No one world pick out Boseman as a physical match for the Godfather of Soul, but his force of will made him so convincing that any argument against his casting soon became moot. As much as 42 heralded the arrival of a major talent, Get On Up consecrated the notion that this wasn’t just a man full of charisma—this was an actor of depth and facility.
2016 would bring Boseman’s signature role, that of T’Challa, the Black Panther, to the screen. The famed Marvel character debuted in Captain America: Civil War, and damn near stole the entire movie from Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr.
In 2017, Boseman played a pre-SCOTUS Thurgood Marshall in Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall just the year before. Boseman’s swaggering performance may have been a reimagined portrayal of the man who went on to become the first black Supreme Court justice, but his performance was so magnetic that one could scarcely care whether his take was strictly authentic or not.
The next year would find Boseman’s star taking full flight. In Ryan Coogler’s adaptation of Marvel’s Black Panther, Boseman would cross over into icon status. As King of the fictional African country Wakanda, Boseman provided such a compelling center to the film that the whole enterprise was elevated beyond its comic book origins. Black Panther became a rare cultural phenomenon, breaking box office records and making history as the first (and only) Marvel film to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture. Boseman would reprise his role as the Black Panther in Avengers: Infinity War and again in Avengers: End Game.
Just this year, a notably thinner Boseman delivered a luminous performance in Spike Lee’s terrific Vietnam War film for Netflix, Da 5 Bloods. His character may only have had a handful of scenes, but he serves as the linchpin of the film. Appearing only in flashbacks and dreams, his memory is the force that drives his four old friends to go back to Vietnam and recover his body for a proper homecoming. His final scene, where Boseman appears as a ghost to forgive his old friend (played by Delroy Lindo) for a tragic mistake, now takes on a new resonance for the rest of us. We can be almost sure that, at the time he filmed it, it had the same resonance for him.
Look, I’ve spent over 550 words documenting the career of Chadwick Boseman. But there is no way I can accurately state the loss of such a gifted young actor. Boseman was both a late bloomer and an enormous talent that left us far too soon. How does one accurately convey what has been taken away?
Cancer stole him from us. More significantly, cancer stole him from his family, from himself. I recently saw a photo of a rather gaunt Boseman on social media a few months ago. I assumed he had lost weight for a role. It never occurred to me he could be dying. Because Chadwick Boseman wasn’t supposed to die. Not now. Not so soon.
But cancer has no interest in what’s “supposed” to be. Cancer takes what it will and leaves us shook, trying to make sense of it all.
There is no sense to be made of this loss. There is no sense to be made of this awful year. Maybe there’s no sense to be made of anything.
Fuck cancer. And fuck this fucking year.
Chadwick Boseman died yesterday, on Jackie Robinson Day. He was 43 years old.