An Ode to a King: Black Panther

Over the weekend we should have celebrated Chadwick Boseman’s 44th birthday. It probably would have been mostly unremarkable and easily missed. There would have been a trending hashtag on Twitter, #HappyBdayBlackPanther #HBDChad. And Chris Evans or Mark Ruffalo or someone in the Marvel family would have had tweeted a sarcastic birthday wish mentioning Royalty or King. And we would have all moved on, after all 44 is extremely young.

Alas the world, and 2020, is a cruel place. While Mr. Boseman was celebrated, it was posthumously. Disney proved they might have a tiny fragment of their soul left by replacing the opening logo of Black Panther to one that honored Boseman as a form or remembrance. And there were plenty of tweets but they were marked with sadness and with reminders of the fragility of life.

I, for one, like to celebrate lives instead of mourn them. I believe living 43 years, becoming a successful actor, playing important historical figures like Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall is miraculous. I can’t be sad about this man I never met, I only want to enjoy what he left behind.

To do so I decided to re-watch Black Panther. I am a BIG Black Panther guy, I will defend it to no end. I am typically one who voices displeasure over movies that are overhyped (Avengers: Endgame, The Dark Knight) but I truly believe Black Panther deserves every ounce of hype.

But before this weekend I had never watched it for Chadwick Boseman. I watched it the first time in theaters because I was in the height of my Marvel craze. I watched it the second time in theaters because I wanted to show my support for the black artists the best way I know how, money. The third time was to pay attention to Ryan Coogler’s directing after learning how young he was. Every time after that was probably because I was listening to the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack and it reminded me how good the film was. I never really focused on the man playing the titular role but could you blame me? This cast is filled to the brim with amazing performers, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, MICHAEL B. JORDAN, it’s truly remarkable.

When I finally started paying attention to the man behind the mask I was blown away. Boseman’s performance is balanced, calm, reassuring, and strong. Which is exactly what the role demands. T’Challa is the only superhero, that I know, that has to balance the weight of being a political leader while also physically protecting his people. Peter Parker meanwhile struggles to balance studying and petty thieves. T’Challa has to be political and well-liked. He needs to put his people first, balancing their traditions with their technological advances and with exposure to the harsh outside world. To a world that has proven to not welcome their kind.

T’Challa also has to deal with the death of his father and the king of Wakanda T’Chaka. Boseman displays T’Challa’s emotions beautifully when the character gets one last chance to say good-bye to T’Chaka on the Ancestral Plane: “I’m not ready to be without you.” T’Challa states to his father (a moment that hits the audience even harder in 2020) to which T’Chaka replies, A man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father.” The raw emotion and vulnerability displayed by Boseman (and John Kani) in this scene alone makes the film stand above it’s Marvel counterpoints.

This role was more than your typical superhero role. Boseman had to not only had the handle the character with strength, vulnerability, and intelligence but he also had to balance the real world implications of the role. Namely the weight of being the first black superhero in the MCU and the pressure of leading a superstar cast. Somehow Boseman managed to accomplish it all.

That is something worth celebrating.

An Ode to a King: 42

My eyes are red and puffy this weekend. I’ve been crying. I started crying as soon as I heard the news.

It’s truly devastating that Chadwick Boseman passed away.

I’m not trying to be flashy with that title. Boseman was a true king in many ways: he selflessly gave his time and effort to others, used his considerable talent to portray multiple black icons in film and just genuinely seemed like a good dude. Oh, and he spent the last years of his life battling colon cancer without ever saying a word about it. I can’t imagine the courage and resilience it took for him to handle that the way he did, but Boseman never missed a beat. It’s truly difficult for me to fathom that he’s gone. 2020 has been cruel and unfair virtually across the board, but this one hurts in a completely different way.

We made a pledge recently to spotlight more films by black directors, actors and writers. While the circumstances are terrible, we thought it would be best to honor Boseman’s legacy by talking about his contributions. That brings me to¬†42.

I can’t think of anyone else who could’ve played Jackie Robinson. There are undoubtedly other fine actors who would have done justice to the role, but would they have brought as much charisma and defiance as Boseman? Could they have so effortlessly depicted a man who held up extraordinarily well under the duress he was thrust into? One of my favorite scenes comes early in the film. Wendell Smith has to move Robinson to a different house after a threat on his life is made. Speeding away in the middle of the night, Robinson begins laughing hysterically.

Wendell asks, “Man, what is so funny?”

Robinson replies, “I thought you woke me up because I got cut from the team.”

I think that says about all you need to know about who the man was and what his priorities were. And perhaps that partly explains how Boseman so naturally disappears into that character: he understood Robinson in a way that few of us can. Those two only ever had their eyes on the big picture.

42 has been accused of overdramatizing Robinson’s first season with the Dodgers, such as the dugout scene where the racism of an opposing manager causes Robinson to lose his temper, and he lashes out in anger. I continue to be befuddled by critics who hold a movie to the same expectations as a documentary, but that scene is also an important one. Robinson is the vehicle for the audience and we are disgusted to see how he was treated, and that these things still happen in our country today. A sane person would probably get fed up far before Robinson did.

It’s a real treat to watch Boseman and Harrison Ford exchange dialogue, expertly capturing the relationship between Robinson and Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. Ford, who said being apart of this story was a great honor for him, gave one of his best performances in years. I wonder how much that had to do with him playing opposite of Boseman, and how much a great man truly lifted everyone he came across.

While celebrating his films is one way to honor Boseman, an even better one is to uphold the values that he believed in while he was alive. Support the type of change that you want to see in your community. The best way to do that is to get out and vote this fall. That link will help you register if you haven’t done so already.