Chadwick Boseman knew his voice had power and used it to challenge Hollywood
Bringing the ‘Black Panther’s’ King T’Challa to life wasn’t just a role, it was a transformation
Chadwick Boseman was one of the good guys.
I was living in Atlanta and freelancing for Ebony magazine when this guy whom no one had quite heard of was slated to star as baseball star Jackie Robinson. The studio was pushing Harrison Ford – he was the big star and quite frankly was how the film was going to get butts in seats because people knew his work.
But Boseman was the new kid on the block. And he was the one I was interested in, as his character was very important to generations of Black folks and a Black readership.
By the time we first talked, Boseman had all but lost his South Carolina drawl. He didn’t elongate his words the way that my family members who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line do — that familiar, thick accent that drips over words like Alaga syrup.
He didn’t have that anymore.
But the charm? That never left.
That charm and that talent, to be sure — is why I believe Boseman was so capable of transforming himself into some of the most important pop culture figures over the course of American history.
He skillfully melted into Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall – even though there was no way possible for him to physically evolve into Marshall’s light skin with Boseman’s smooth chocolate coloring.
“If this was a cradle-to-grave story about Marshall, obviously we would have to deal with his complexion,” Boseman shared with me as we sat in the basement of a hotel in the District. “Right now, we’re dealing with one case. He’s walking into this courtroom as a Black man. He’s not a Black man passing as a white man. He didn’t try to pass as a white man. He showed up as the Black attorney, right? He showed up as a Black man and got gagged for being Black, right? They didn’t say,” Boseman stopped to laugh, “ ‘We’re going to gag you because you’re light-skinned-ded.’ ”
Director Reggie Hudlin, who also was there, laughed too.
We all did.
We laughed because it’s true.
Black is black, and even if anyone had something to say about Boseman’s skin color not measuring up, his acting was undeniable.
He was Thurgood Marshall.
He was James Brown.
He was Jackie Robinson.
And he was good.
Boseman had gotten better inside of eight years at this media game.
When we first met, he was shy and almost maybe being careful about the words he said to me.
The reporter and subject relationship in Hollywood is a tricky one. Sometimes, this world wants to know more than you’re willing to share. Not everyone wants to weigh in on everything.
But I know exactly when he started trusting me as a reporter. It was after he’d landed the role of Black Panther. We were talking – laughing – about how the Black Panther film was easily the most anticipated, but the script wasn’t done. Boseman knew how hungry everyone was to see a Black superhero come alive on screen.
He also knew that his voice was now strong and people were listening and paying attention. And he knew that even as this moment was victorious, Hollywood still needed to be called to task on the things that make this industry problematic, even as it was in the infant phases of creating a groundbreaking blockbuster with a mostly Black cast.
Hollywood was toasting Boseman – he was part of Vanity Fair’s prestigious 2014 Hollywood cover, which confirmed that the industry was paying attention to the Howard University grad who also graduated from the British American Drama Academy.
But he didn’t like being the only one.
“There was a period of time where it was Sidney Poitier is the guy. And very often, people will come to me or some of the other guys that are doing well right now and they say, ‘They’re going to pass the torch to you.’ And I don’t think that’s right, because it’s possible for there to be a Chris Pine, or a Chris Evans and Chris O’Donnell and a Chris Hemsworth and all the other Chrises, but it can only be one of us at a time? That is part of what’s wrong,” Boseman told me. “There’s so much material for white actors that [Hollywood] has to manufacture stars, sometimes before they’re even ready to be stars. And they will put up billboards before people even know who they are. You’ll be like, ‘Who’s that? Who’s that person?’ But with us, it’s like we have to kill each other before we get there.”
Everyone opining about Boseman’s contribution to the world will have to talk about what he was able to do with Black Panther.
Bringing King T’Challa to life wasn’t just a role. It was a transformation.
That film will go down in history as the film that perhaps changed the way Hollywood treats films with predominantly Black casts globally. Never has dark-skinned blackness looked as beautiful as it did in Ryan Coogler’s masterpiece – we were filmed the way we should have always been filmed, the gorgeousness of our hues bouncing off the silver screen and a budget that rivals the types of budgets that Black filmmakers have never been able to touch before that moment.
It looked good, it was good, and it felt good.
And Boseman was the leader of the film.
It’s painful now to realize that while he was telling me how physically demanding this role was — I was able to spend some time with him and the cast on set in Atlanta— he was privately battling colon cancer.
He busted his butt to get into fighting shape for Captain America: Civil War, the film that first introduced his character and the film that honestly served as an origin story of the heir to the fictional African kingdom Wakanda.
The role, by its nature, was physically demanding. I watched Boseman do his own stunts in the Korean casino scene where he did flying kicks that sent his enemies flying into a mattress that no one would ever see on camera. To do all of that, the chief focus for Boseman was increased athleticism.
“Running, swimming, and actually fighting — you’re limited at a certain point when you get closer to production because it’s an insurance risk. But actually doing … martial arts and trying to make it as real as possible … sparring. We did stunt training; you can’t necessarily hit people, [but] there is some contact every now and again,” he told me before he went into production of Black Panther.
On set, I was warned that he was staying in character. I was told by Janna Bettencourt, who handles publicity for Disney studio, that he likely would be talking in the dialect we all heard him use as T’Challa.
As soon as he saw me — we sat in the top rungs of the studio on director’s chairs — he broke out into a smile and hugged me. I asked him the first question and as he delivered the answer in a foreign accent, he stopped and laughed. “Hmm, [uh] I’m going to go back to my regular voice now …,” he said before we both laughed and he launched into answering my question about how the optics of this film could potentially change Hollywood as we know it.
The cast was making this film in Atlanta about six miles from where Martin Luther King Jr. was buried in 1968 in a town that at the time was 54% Black, even with the rapidly changing demographics of gentrification. I was there on the 26th day of shooting Black Panther, and it was in the middle of Black History Month 2017. We were only 30 days into Donald Trump’s presidency. Michael Flynn had just resigned as national security adviser from the new administration.
So much was happening on the set. So much was happening in the country.
And the cast was living in a bubble as they were shooting this marvel.
That day, Boseman was rocking a charcoal gray brocade jacket and tailored black slacks, and by the time we sat down and talked, he’d worked through another 10-hour day as T’Challa, king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He was doing roundhouse kicks at one of his enemies that sent him sailing back and landing safely on a stack of floor mats.
And as focused as Boseman was with what was happening right in front of him, his mind trickled to other places, as much of the country and eventually the world, marched in protest of Trump’s newly minted presidency.
“I look at the internet more for what’s happening in the country than I do news about us,” he told me. “By the time we leave here … I want to see, like, what did he do today.”
Boseman once told me that he knew the moment when he understood why the work he was doing — not just the grabbing of marquees, not just working alongside Hollywood’s top talent, not just surprising critics with how easily he melted into a role of some of the world’s most famous men — was cemented.
He was on the set of Draft Day, a 2014 sports drama about the Cleveland Browns and its general manager (Kevin Costner) who wants to turn around his losing team with a hot draft pick.
“When you’re doing a car shot,” he told me, “you’re following the lead car.” He said they stopped in front of the projects. “I get out of the car, and somebody says, ‘Yo, that’s that dude from that baseball movie outside, right?!’ Everybody in the projects came outside, and they were like, ‘Hey, hey, hey! I got your movie on DVD in the house!’ The DVD hadn’t come out yet. They were like, ‘It didn’t come out yet? Oh, no, no. We didn’t mean it that way. But look — I saw it.’ ”
He smiled at the memory. He didn’t care that they were jumping up and down over a bootlegged copy of his first film.
“You want people to appreciate what you’ve been doing.”
I still hate this part.
I’ll still cry along with everyone else who is feeling emotional at the loss of a great young actor who died at his home in Los Angeles on Friday after a private four-year battle with colon cancer, who truly was at the very beginning of a global career.
But I’ll take solace in knowing that he most certainly did his part to help move the needle and change Hollywood for the better.
And that he knew that we all appreciated his work.
Because we did. And we still do.
I now host a digital show for The Undefeated called Another Act, and behind me is the poster from Black Panther. I got that poster the day the film opened and right after Boseman and I sat down to talk about how historic this moment was.
“I feel some strange sense of ownership,” I told him, excited in a way that I have never been about the world getting ready to take in a film that I’d already seen twice.
“C’mon, you were right there with us. You can. And you should,” he told me, before giving me a hug.
And then I was gifted that poster; the cast had signed it for me. Boseman’s signature is in the lower right hand corner.
I’ve gotten movie posters before. But this one was meaningful. And I kept it and had it framed and have it displayed as the backdrop to every interview I do for our show. Most everyone comments on it; actors say how they either wanted to be in the movie, admire the movie or how this movie changed everything – even possibly for their own careers.
And then we talk. And build.
The same way as with him over the years.
Rest in peace, King Chadwick. And thank you.