A tribute to Chadwick Boseman

By Laleen Jayamanne
The ‘Black Panther’ star was also a role model to black youth

Chadwick Boseman at the NAACP Image Awards in March 2019. Image © Paul Smith / Alamy Live News

Chadwick Boseman’s encounter with Muhammad Ali will not be forgotten by Howard University’s class of 2018. In an eloquent commencement speech at the historically black university, Boseman told a memorable anecdote from his undergraduate days at Howard:

I remember walking across this yard on what seemed to be a random day, my head down, lost in my own world of issues like many of you do daily. I’m almost at the centre of the yard. I raised my head and Muhammad Ali was walking towards me. Time seemed to slow down as his eyes locked on mine and opened wide. He raised his fist to a quintessential guard. I was game to play along with him, to act as if I was a worthy opponent. What an honour to be challenged by the GOAT – the greatest of all time – for a brief moment. His face was as serious as if I were Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila”. His movements were flashes of a past greater than I can imagine. His security let the joke play along for a second before they ushered him away, and I walked away floating like a butterfly. I walked away amused at him, amused at myself, amused at life for this moment that almost no one would ever believe. I walked away light, ready to take on the world. That is the magic of this place. Almost anything can happen here.

As we mourn the visionary actor’s untimely death and reflect on his career, it is also important to acknowledge his role as a mentor to a new generation of black creatives. In his 2018 speech, Boseman commented on recent student protests against university policies, in which protesters had occupied the main administrative building for nine days in order to demand better housing, lower fees and reforms to policing on campus, among other things. He commended the students for their organisational and negotiating abilities, but he also praised the university administration for having engaged with them productively. He added that getting involved in such negotiations would prepare students to fight for issues that they believed in, in a world that was “considerably more cruel and unforgiving than any debate here”.

Boseman impressed on the graduates the importance of taking a critical stance and maintaining a sense of dignity and self-worth, even in the most difficult of situations. He thanked his Howard professors for having challenged him, mentioning several of them by name, and describing them as “the ones that will fail you out of the goodness of their hearts”. Like a good educator, Boseman took the time to elaborate on this subtle statement. It was a tribute to his teachers who had a sense of ethical responsibility to students, who thought it essential to demand more from them than they did of themselves.

Boseman said that what he learned at Howard prepared him to play the iconic roles of Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era, in 42 (2013), funk singer James Brown in Get on Up (2014), and Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice (and also an alumnus of Howard) in the 2017 film Marshall. But it was his role as King T’Challa of Wakanda in the 2018 superhero blockbuster Black Panther that saw Boseman reach global stardom, and he became especially beloved in Africa.

While at Howard, where he majored in directing, Boseman had travelled with a professor to Africa to study ritual theatre and its transformation in contemporary stage practices. His talent as an actor was combined with sharp analytical skills honed by the study of African and African-American history at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem. Boseman, who had wanted to write and direct professionally rather than act, had said that he continued to write throughout his acting career. He wrote and directed the 2008 short film Blood Over a Broken Pawn, and directed and produced a second short film, Heaven, in 2012.

Boseman’s intellectual training was evident in the way he discussed the Afrofuturist aesthetics of Black Panther, with many of the film’s visual elements drawn from the material and symbolic cultures created by the many diverse cultural groups of the African continent. He spoke poignantly of his growing understanding of how this rich cultural patrimony had created a sense of identity for Africans, an identity that he, as a black American, sorely craved. The film was a way of learning about those African traditions that were lost to him: Boseman learnt some Xhosa and also pushed for the use of a Xhosa-inflected English accent in Black Panther because it was the South African language of John Kani, the actor who played King T’Chaka (T’Challa’s father).

In my view, Boseman provided the most astute analysis of the interrelation between King T’Challa and his cousin, N’Jadaka / Killmonger, played with a hip-hop swagger by Michael B. Jordan. In a discussion about the film’s characters, Boseman said that T’Challa – “born with a vibranium spoon in [his] mouth” – would not be credible to an African-American audience if he did not integrally, affectively connect with his opponent, Killmonger. He provided a rare and startling glimpse into the psyche of a performer when he said that, as an actor, he identified more with Killmonger than his own character. This comment is priceless for those studying and teaching acting, and it would be insightful for those examining psychotherapy and the formation of subjectivity as well. Boseman and Jordan agreed that their characters formed something of a composite figure – two sides of the same coin. T’Challa’s idealised role as the perfect king was a counterpoint to the more realistic (and often contradictory) traits embodied by Killmonger, who could be extremely violent and angry but also coolly intellectual. Both Boseman and Jordan expressed a wish that the relationship between their characters would open up a cultural conversation. “We were forever linked,” were some of the last words Boseman spoke to Jordan.

As we know, the film was received rapturously by African-American communities: children, adults, movie lovers and scholars alike adored it. Black celebrities bought out tickets to screenings in Harlem and in the South, so that children could see the film for free. At the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, the cast held a Q&A session for young black students, harnessing their star power to celebrate and encourage African-American creativity. The film’s sophisticated Afrofuturist aesthetic, the largely black cast (drawn from Africa, the diaspora and the US), its innovative ideas and challenging themes made it a unique film in the superhero canon, as well as in Hollywood more broadly. When Black Panther won the 2019 Screen Actors Guild award for the best ensemble, it was Boseman who spoke incisively of the film’s politics and its achievements within the context of Hollywood. 

Boseman concluded his oration at Howard by reinforcing the importance of education, and the values it cultivates. In doing so, he returned to his brief but decisive encounter with Muhammad Ali:

I thought of Ali in the middle of the yard in his elder years, drawing from his victories and his losses. At that moment, I realised something new about the greatness of Ali and how he carried his crown. I realised that he was transferring something to me on that day … he was transferring the spirit of the fighter to me. Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you.

Ali’s brilliant wit and his spirited stance against the Vietnam War – for which his career suffered – are recalled energetically, in an instant, through that “quintessential guard” gesture, with Boseman’s raised fists trembling uncontrollably like Ali’s did at the end. It is fitting that the whole encounter with Ali happened in silence, for it is the performing body that can transmit powerful images in an instant.

The class of 2018 were fortunate to hear the wisdom of this relatively young artist in his prime. They will remember his humour, they will hear his vernacular play with English, they will recall his gravity and his levity. They know that he will not live to be the elder that Ali was. A young student walking, weighed down with cares, will not encounter Boseman, in his elder years, in the middle of that yard. But they will know him now (as Ryan Coogler does), as an “ancestor” who helped prepare them to face the rigours of life in contemporary America with joy and purpose.

Laleen Jayamanne

Laleen Jayamanne taught cinema studies at the University of Sydney between 1990 and 2014. She wrote “A Sri Lankan reading of Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries” in 1991 and has written on Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther.

Chadwick Boseman at the NAACP Image Awards in March 2019. Image © Paul Smith / Alamy Live News

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