When I walked out of my screening of Captain America: Civil War, a person handed me a paper and pencil, to gauge my reaction to the film. Four years later, I couldn’t tell you what exactly was on that paper, except that it asked if I might be interested in a solo film starring Black Panther, the superhero who had debuted roughly two hours earlier.
I checked “yes”.
That checkmark wasn’t a casual shrug of “sure, why not?” It was an emphatic, desperate clarion call for more of what I had just seen. It was a plea to visit Wakanda, the nation that Civil War had teased in the end credits scene, with its gleaming onyx panther sculpture roaring above the trees, greeting its visitors but fiercely protecting its citizens. I was hungry for more of that brutally tactile but effortlessly graceful Vibranium costume which had put Captain America and the Winter Soldier to shame in the film’s combat set pieces.
But most of all, I wanted to know more about the man underneath it: the king T’Challa, whose head uneasily wore his father’s crown after a fateful explosion killed him. I wanted to see more of the man who, even in vengeful fury, carried himself with a graceful regality that was unlike anything I had seen before. I wanted to know his wants, his desires, his fears, his triumphs, his tragedies, all of it.
I wanted the actor Chadwick Boseman to be the superhero I never had growing up, and didn’t realize I craved until I left that theater.
What a remarkable gift it was that, two years later, my grand wishes were exceeded beyond my wildest imaginations. What a devastating tragedy that I must reflect upon those wishes and their meaning in the wake of Boseman’s untimely passing at the age of 43, after a quiet, valiant fight against colon cancer.
There have been Black superheroes on film and television before Black Panther. In my millennial lifetime, there was Blade, Storm of the X-Men, Static Shock if you watched Kids WB on Saturday mornings. But they didn’t stand as tall as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or The Flash. I was too young to metabolize it, but there was an implicit message from the gatekeepers: Black people weren’t superheroes, and if they were, they would never match the all-time greats, the ones on your T-shirts and lunchboxes. Maybe they didn’t sell because they were for a “niche” (read “Black”) audience. Maybe centuries-old beliefs about Blackness as everything other than heroic were at play. Regardless, it was if we didn’t deserve to see someone that looked like us doing the miraculous, in service of a greater good.
T’Challa, through the glorious vessel of Chadwick Boseman, eviscerated that cruel and vicious lie forever.
In Black Panther, T’Challa was everything we were told we couldn’t be on screen. He was intelligent. He was proud. He was respectful. He was ferocious in battles, physical and verbal. He was funny and self-deprecating. He was shy and even awkward (usually around Nakia, played by the luminous Lupita N’yongo). He was deferential, especially to the Black women he surrounded himself with. He exhibited growth and change in his ideals, even when its source was his enemy. He held people, and himself, accountable. He was fun. Rarely were Black men, or Black people period, allowed to be this complex, and inherently good.
The beauty of Chadwick Boseman’s performance was that he held these traits, even those that contradicted each other, without losing the grace and elegance that defined T’Challa as a human being. Although the film bared his character’s name, Boseman didn’t have the showiest role, nor did he garner the most critical praise (that would belong to Michael B. Jordan and his Killmonger, the sizzling ball of fury and abandonment that would set T’Challa on his path to enlightenment). Were Boseman not the gifted, chameleonic actor that he was – with a history of playing Black icons like James Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall – he would’ve been swallowed whole by his wondrous cast, or director Ryan Coogler’s jaw-dropping depiction of the Wakandan homeland. But Boseman’s generosity as a scene partner, and his deceptively quiet charisma, held the film together. It was his fierce humility that catapulted Black Panther from just another comic book movie to the global, cultural phenomenon that it was, and still is.
Chadwick Boseman didn’t just bring a comic book character to life. He shined a blinding light on the beauties and complexities of Blackness. He embodied everything that we could be, even when internal and external forces try to hold us back. The fact that he had accomplished all of this for all of us while also fighting for his own life is inconceivable and almost too much to bear. By that and any other metric, Chadwick Boseman was the hero that we were taught as children we didn’t deserve. He showed us – showed me – how wrong those lessons were.
No one is more deserving to rest in power than him.