Annus Horribilis 2020 continued its never-ending tour through the seven stages of hell on Saturday as news emerged that Chadwick Boseman had passed away after a long battle with cancer.
For some reason, it instantly reminded me of a black man I knew in Navi Mumbai. I had seen him in the mall once or twice, two strangers glancing at each other from across the aisle casually.
He saw that I was wearing a Black Panther t-shirt and ubiquitously made the Wakanda Forever hand gesture at me. As if on a reflex, I returned it without thinking.
That cross-cultural connection between two individuals who hadn’t ever met or were likely to meet is what made the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Black Panther special. The MCU was a truly global collective experience that transcended creed, caste, language, religion, skin colour and any other imagined differences because we all wanted to be superheroes.
And that’s why Chadwick Boseman’s death feels so personal.
Chadwick Boseman was in his own way a trailblazer, without a doubt one of the most talented actors of his generation. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it the unbearable loss of a ‘prince of American cinema’ and it certainly felt like that.
Boseman didn’t need to play a king to be considered one, he had a regal charisma that cannot be taught or even inherited, it’s just an innate characteristic that lights up a screen the moment he comes along.
Somehow, Chadwick Boseman could mould that charisma based on the characters he played whether he was the King of Soul, the first black baseball player, the first African-American Supreme Court justice or the first black male lead superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He was an amalgamation of both his star quality and the ethos of the character he was portraying where it became impossible to differentiate between actor and role.
He brought to the big screen the black man’s perennial battle for equality in America. As Thurgood Marshal, he was the first African-American Supreme Court judge who got rid of racial segregation. Interestingly, it’s through Hollywood and superheroes that we learn the most about America – its inequities and its awesomeness.
The first time I learned about Thurgood Marshall incidentally was through the Netflix superhero show Daredevil where the young Matt Murdock is reading Thurgood Marshal’s iconic speech: “We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”
As Jackie Robinson he was the first black baseball player of all time, heralding an end to racial segregation in a sport. Boseman held his own in the movie against an older Harrison Ford, showing the depth of his thespian skills.
As James Brown, he became the Godfather of Soul.
In his own way, Chadwick Boseman helped the rest of the world understand the black man’s eternal fight for equality.
And just as we thought he had called dibs on every iconic black character; he became Black Panther embodying the larger-than-life King of Wakanda that imagines a country of black people not ravaged by the White Man’s greed and stripped of its natural resources.
We are lucky to live in this era where so many talented actors don the mantle of superheroes to play comic book heroes, a genre which wasn’t considered serious cinema earlier, and still isn’t by the likes of Martin Scorsese. As an aside, it’s hard to understand Scorsese’s grouse. Why is a comic book strip an amusement park ride, while morally ambiguous gangsters, sometimes rehashing the same role again and again is considered great cinema?
With Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman became a man known across the world, a cultural icon against racial inequality who managed to drive home a message without boring us with 1000-word theses. And he did this while battling cancer, showing that he wasn’t just portraying a superhero but was an embodiment of the character.
Sadly, the prince would leave us too soon, just like James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe and Heath Ledger.
Perhaps Barack Obama summed it up best: “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.”
Black Panther comes back from the dead twice. First when he’s saved by M’Baku and returns to fight Killmonger. The second time when he walks through that portal to help Captain America take on Thanos and his army. I guess it’s too much to ask for a third.
The moral arc of the universe is long, particularly for black people in America, who still have to demand simple things such as not being shot dead for existing, but Chadwick Boseman, in his own way helped extend that arc towards justice. And as Black Panther, he taught us all to talk to each other without words. Wakanda Forever, King T’Challa.
Nirmalya Dutta is a Web Editor of The Free Press Journal.
Read other Nonsensical Nemo columns.