The Impact of a King
Chadwick Boseman's legacy of the Black Panther
It seems all year we have been saying how it can't get any worse. Every day, there are new memes appearing about 2020 and its nightmares. Go home, 2020. You're drunk. Well, now 2020 got behind the wheel of a car while drunk. Everyone across social media and news outlets is expressing shock and heartbreak over Chadwick Boseman's death on August 28. The day the Black Panther died.
What is so maddening about this circumstance is what everyone is now learning. For the past four years, the actor was secretly battling colon cancer. Think about that. All while portraying the Black Panther, he was dying from the inside out. Captain America: Civil War was released in 2016. Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War were released in 2018. Avengers: Endgame was released in 2019. Boseman took playing a superhero to the next level. The fact that no one knew he was battling cancer while he filmed scene after scene as King T'Challa speaks volumes of his work ethic and humility.
Known prior to his role as Black Panther from starring in biopic films, Boseman portrayed Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up. Born in South Carolina, he attended Howard University in D.C., where he earned a degree in directing. He was an advocate for biopic films and stories about real people, saying once that he would love to play Jimi Hendrix. That desire fueled the authenticity of the character T'Challa.
"I'm an artist. Artists don't need permission to work. Regardless of whether I'm acting or not, I write. I write when I'm tired in fact, because I believe your most pure thoughts surface."
Think about that now that we know what he'd been facing. Tired all the time, he still worked at his craft and still carried on. During filming, he kept in touch with two boys he'd met who were terminally ill with cancer themselves. They said they were trying to hold on until the movie came out and they could see it. This story takes on a whole new meaning now in the news that Boseman himself had a connection much deeper to their circumstances than we knew. Watching his emotion in this clip now in hindsight is nothing short of devastating.
For so many, the film about the Black Panther was as anticipated as Wonder Woman the year before. It was about time. It was way past time. So much has been written about the importance and cultural significance of the film and why it means so much and why representation means so much and is so vital. It is both brilliant and amazing how well the film was received, blowing out box office records before it even opened. More than a superhero movie, though, it was an attempt to mix fact with legend in order to produce hope. No, there is no Wakanda (though I still love that video of a student giving a deadpan power point presentation on Wakanda to a clueless teacher and giggling class). Wakanda is an idea. A goal of a utopia that has never been touched by colonialist white supremacy.
Boseman discussed the way he built off the South Africa Xhosa accent he'd worked with in Message from the King to create a speech for T'Challa:
"People think about how race has affected the world. It's not just in the States. Colonialism is the cousin of slavery. Colonialism in Africa would have it that, in order to be a ruler, his education comes from Europe. I wanted to be completely sure that we didn't convey that idea because that would be counter to everything that Wakanda is about. It's supposed to be the most technologically advanced nation on the planet. If it's supposed to not have been conquered -- which means that advancement has happened without colonialism tainting it, poisoning the well of it, without stopping it or disrupting it -- then there's no way he would speak with a European accent. If I did that, I would be conveying a white supremacist idea of what being educated is and what being royal or presidential is.
Because it's not just about him running around fighting. He's the ruler of a nation. And if he's the ruler of a nation, he has to speak to his people. He has to galvanize his people. And there's no way I could speak to my people, who have never been conquered by Europeans, with a European voice."
T'Challa represents a history and a people who have been left alone f-o-r-e-v-e-r (repeat that and think about it) and never touched by Europeans. Never invaded. Never touched. He represents what might have been, but with the hope of what can still be. He connects this hope to identity itself:
"You might say that this African nation is fantasy. But to have the opportunity to pull from real ideas, real places and real African concepts, and put it inside of this idea of Wakanda - that's a great opportunity to develop what a sense of identity is, especially when you're disconnected from it."
What I loved about T'Challa was his wisdom. We learn all we need to know and more through his character arc in Civil War. He has the most claim of any of them to kill Zemo in revenge for the terrorist attack at a peace summit that killed his father. He is the one behind the scenes piecing together all the clues while we watch Cap and Tony bicker over Bucky and get the Avengers fighting against each other. He is there all along. Quiet and calm and calculating. Like a predator stalking its prey. But he doesn't jump.
T'Challa gets his chance to kill Zemo there at the end. And he doesn't. That was the moment I realized how much I respected him. He tells Zemo, "Vengeance has consumed you. It's consuming them. I am done letting it consume me." He brings Bucky to Wakanda to help him heal, to help him find peace. This compassion echoes twofold in the standalone film where he confronts his father's spirit about his uncle's death and about keeping the truth of Erik a secret. "You were wrong to abandon him," he says. "We were wrong. All of you were wrong. To turn your backs on the rest of the world. You let the fear of our discovery stop us from doing what is right. No more."
Boseman himself acknowledges that he likes this characteristic of T'Challa: "I love that he thinks about other people. He's not afraid to hear wise counsel. I think there is some fear of being wrong. I identify with that, with his plight, his personality."
And when asked if he missed having figures like this one to look up to as a child, he said that you can't really miss what you didn't know you could have had. And that resonates. Many people said the same of Wonder Woman, that it took seeing a woman with grace and power and wisdom and strength take the big screen with such resonance in order for them to realize how much they'd needed to see it represented.
As part of my doctoral studies, I teach composition courses at my university. I love media studies and I think students easily connect to things they watch and listen to, so I make that a big staple in my curriculum. We discuss social topics and how they're represented in media. We looked at films about Wonder Woman and Black Panther and what people and critics were saying about them--both the good and the problematic. I teach in south Mississippi. My student demographic is largely black. For them to tell me how much this film meant to them and to be able to write about it in both creative and critical ways is a highlight of my teaching career. Not because of anything I did, but because of what they were able to say themselves and what I was able to hear from them.
I saw the film in theaters by myself the same way I saw Wonder Woman by myself. A few spots down from me was a black teenage boy getting so into it and showing such enthusiasm I was afraid he was going to fall out of his seat. I was much the same way when I saw all the incredible crying moments in Wonder Woman. I realized that as much as I was loving the Black Panther, he was loving it on a whole different level and I was so excited for him because of his enthusiasm. I loved it. He was having his own Diana moment with T'Challa there in that theater. These characters matter. These stories aren't just fiction.
In a time when social justice is once again sorely, sorely needed in the Black Lives Matter movement, it is a huge deal to lose the Black Panther himself. When asked about the legacy of this project, Boseman spoke of opportunity:
"It's just this tremendous opportunity, not just for me but for all of us really to get out of our boxes. It's not just black people getting out of their boxes. Everybody is excited about the opportunity to do something that we should have already done. People are excited about seeing new stuff, but I think they're extra excited about seeing stuff they should have seen already."
Black Panther reflects stories we should have seen already. Black Lives Matter is a movement whose unwavering victory we should have seen already. Justice and representation are things we should have seen already. And so, all across the world today, we say, "Wakanda Forever."