Like many people, I spent two hours and fifteen minutes of my weekend re-watching Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman and those who knew him and worked with him undoubtably knew he had cancer but I did not. I had no idea he was sick until the moment my brother texted me that Chadwick had died. Dead of cancer at age 43, the same age our middle brother would have been this year, had he lived past 37. The news hit us hard.
May I respectfully remind you: great is the matter of birth and death.
Life is fleeting, quickly passing.
Strive each day to awaken… awaken!
Do not waste this life.Zen Gatha (Verse)
Hearing the news of Chadwick’s death was a hard blow in a year of hard blows. It’s been a tough year for America and especially for many of us in the Black community. We lost Kobe in January, the global pandemic has hit the Black community especially hard, there has been racial civil unrest on a level not seen since the late sixties and now we get the shocking news of the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman, an actor who portrayed many roles of Black excellence in film: from Jackie Robinson to Thurgood Marshall to the fictional king of Wakanda: T’Challa, the Black Panther. Yeah…. 2020 really has been a garbage year.
When Black Panther was released in 2018, I saw some people on my social media who didn’t understand the “hype” around that movie. I get it, yet another superhero movie with over the top car chases, comic book villains and ridiculous action sequences – we’ve seen so many films like this in recent years, what makes this one special? I’d submit that o understand why Black Panther meant a lot to so many of us, it’s important to realize what it is like growing up as a Black kid in America. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I rarely saw heroes that looked like me in popular culture. Until Tiana came around in 2009 (after I had graduated college, btw), we didn’t have a Black Disney princess – personally I made-do with Nala and Jasmine but it really wasn’t the same. And so, when Black Panther was announced, I was immediately hyped, excited at the very prospect of a high budget film starring a cast of heroes that looked like my family and me. An entire movie set around a Black superhero was cause for excitement enough and then as cast announcements were made the hype only grew for many of us. My oldest child was about four years old when Black Panther came out; with small kids, my husband and I rarely see movies in the theater these days but we got a sitter for Black Panther and went to see it on opening night. I’ll never forget the experience of sitting in that theater in my early 30s, watching a summer blockbuster film filled with heroes who looked like me. I found myself with chills (and some tears) watching scene when T’Challa arrives for his challenge day to chants of T’Challa-lo, sung by men and women who look like me. I felt pride knowing that my son would have a fictional character like T’Challa to look up to and my daughter would have Shuri. When we say “representation matters,” this is what we mean: being able to look up to heroes real and fictional and easily seeing yourself in their place. It’s not that we can’t or don’t look up to others who don’t look or sound like us but there’s an extra mental leap you need to do to see yourself in their shoes; it may seems like a small thing but every little bit helps.
When times are hard – and 2020 has meant hard times for basically everyone – we often turn to fictional stories and fantasy worlds for solace. Fantasy stories, especially those that follow the Hero’s Journey template, help to give us hope that no matter how dark things seem today, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Somehow, some way, the hero will rise from the the depths of hopelessness and death to conquer the darkness. For countless generations, humans have turned to storytelling and art to see us through the struggles of life; which brings me back to Chadwick Boseman and his untimely death.
Chadwick knew he had Stage III cancer, but he continued to create his art and tell stories anyway. While fighting his own battle with cancer, he connected with kids struggling with cancer, helping lift their spirits through their own fight. His portrayal of T’Challa is a unique superhero performance that shows a compassionate, vulnerable Black man stepping into the role of a king. As a Black American myself, I found his portrayal refreshing; it gave our popular culture an example of a man who does not match the negative stereotypes we often see. I’ve since read that Chadwick provided personal feedback on that scene that gave me chills: saying that the African crowd would not simply stand still on T’Challa’s Challenge Day, they would dance. Yes, another actor could have performed the role but Chadwick made it his own and reached beyond the role to help inspire others.
The news of his death is devastating for many people – myself included – for many different reasons. We may not have known him personally but his death hits many of us hard. For me, it brings up the loss and grief of my brother who was born the same year as Chadwick and passed away suddenly in August 2014. Two young Black men, gone way too soon. In his short time here – even though I’d never met him – Chadwick showed us an example of a powerful, compassionate and generous life through his art and his life off the screen. He had a kind smile and often shared words of compassion and gratitude to others. Let his death be a reminder to each of us of how short life can be and an inspiration for us to reach for our dreams. He may be gone but his work, the films he made and the impact he had on so many lives will continue.