The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

The title of this post comes from the tradition of announcing a king’s death and naming the successor taking his place. The phrase was first used in 1422 upon the death of King Charles VI of France and the ascension to the throne by his son, Charles VII. Today, I use the phrase to honor Chadwick Boseman, whose most famous film role was as Black Panther’s T’Challa, King of Wakanda, at Boseman’s passing last month from colon cancer at the young age of 43. But instead of being replaced by a new king, Boseman’s legacy will live on.

Chadwick Boseman once said, “Everyone is the hero of their own story. You should be the hero of your own story.” He certainly was the hero of his own story. He was also a hero to me because of the roles he played in film and the person he was.  

As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I am not a fan of superhero movies, even though I have seen at least a dozen of them. But I loved Boseman’s character, King T’Challa, in Black Panther,[i] because his moral strength equaled his physical strength. And he showed the world that superheroes come in all colors. Here is my favorite scene from Black Panther:

I first became familiar with Boseman when I watched his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42.[ii] Of course, Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play major league baseball. Sadly, baseball is as old as America, as colonists played variations of the game at the time of the American Revolution. Then, in September 1845, a group of New York businessmen formed a baseball club and codified the game’s basic rules that we know today. But it became a white man’s game for more than 80 years until April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson played his first game in the major leagues.[iii]

It took a person with the character of Jackie Robinson to be the first to break that color barrier. Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to sign a black player. But he needed someone with more than just a talent for the sport. Rickey wanted a player who could withstand the racial abuse that the first black player would face. Branch interviewed Robinson for over three hours, focusing on how Robinson would handle the racial slurs and actions of fans and other players that would come his way. Robinson responded, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” And so, Robinson bore the abuse mainly in silence—at least in public. Here is a scene from 42 that illustrates how hard that must have been on Robinson (played by Boseman):

Robinson went on play ten years in the majors, won Rookie of the Year in 1947, made the All-Star team six times, and won the Most Valuable Player award in 1949—the first black player to receive that honor. More importantly, young boys playing baseball of all colors idolized Robinson and dreamed of being like him.

I next saw Chadwick Boseman in the film, Marshall,[iv] the true story of a young Thurgood Marshall who later became the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The movie portrays Marshall’s representation of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Marshall, working for the NAACP, was relentless in defending his clients, but he was also uncompromising in searching for the truth. Or, as he says in the film, “I only represent innocent people accused because of their race.” Check out this scene:

As a law student, Thurgood Marshall became one of my heroes. He argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them. Boseman portrayed Marshall in the film exactly as I had imagined him.

Boseman’s latest movie is Da 5 Bloods,[v] directed by Spike Lee. In this film, four Vietnam War veterans return to that country fifty years later to bring home a chest of gold bars they had buried while there. They also went to recover the remains of their comrade, “Stormin’ Norman,” (played by Boseman), the fifth Blood, and the moral compass of the group. Since returning home from the war, Norman had haunted the dreams of Paul, another of the Bloods. On their return to Vietnam, Norman returns one more time to Paul:

The scene is one of forgiveness. How often do we beat ourselves up over accidents? Over things that just happen or things over which we have little or no control? Our real friends understand and will forgive us every time.

But Da 5 Bloods is more than just a story of forgiveness. It is a story of war, race, and injustice. At the time of the Vietnam War, African Americans made up eleven percent of the U.S. population. Yet they comprised 32 percent of the American troops in Vietnam. The film begins with great pessimism, tracing the history of blacks in this country as one of slavery and oppression. But it ends on a more hopeful note, with these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting black poet, Langston Hughes: “America never was America to me. And yet, I swear this oath, America will be.” The last frame of the movie reports the assassination of Dr. King, reminding us that we have a long way to go as a society before King’s oath can be realized. But individually, as the characters in the film illustrate, we can forge bonds of love with family and friends that will start us down that road to where most Americans want us to be.

Chadwick Boseman does not just play heroes in the movies. Chadwick Boseman, the man, is as large as the characters he played. He spoke out against injustice whenever he saw it. When he learned of Sienna Miller’s salary for the film, 21 Bridges, he agreed to a pay cut so the studio would pay Ms. Miller appropriately. Women actors still make only 30 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.

Ms. Miller explained it this way: “In the aftermath of this, I’ve told other male actor friends of mine that story, and they all go very, very quiet and go home and probably have to sit and think about things for a while. But there was no showiness, it was, ‘Of course, I’ll get you to that number, because that’s what you should be paid.’”

In 2018, Boseman gave the commencement address at Howard University, his alma mater (and the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall). I close with this experience of Boseman and his words of advice to the graduates. Once again, Boseman demonstrated the kind of man he was.

“I was on a roll when I entered the system of entertainment, theater, television, and film. In my first New York audition for a professional play, I landed the lead role. From that play, I got my first agent. From that agent, I got an on-screen audition. It was a soap opera…. I scored that role, too….

“Once I saw the role I was playing, I found myself conflicted. The role wasn’t necessarily stereotypical. A young man in his formative years with a violent streak pulled into the allure of gang involvement. That’s somebody’s real story…. [B]ut I was conflicted because this role seemed to be wrapped up in assumptions about us as Black folk. The writing failed to search for specificity. Plus, there was barely a glimpse of positivity or talent in the character, barely a glimpse of hope. I would have to make something out of nothing. I was conflicted. Howard [University] had instilled in me a certain amount of pride, and for my taste, this role didn’t live up to those standards.

“It was just my luck that after filming the first two episodes, execs of the show called me into their offices and told me how happy they were with my performance. They wanted me to be around for a long time. They said if there was anything that I needed, just let them know. That was my opening. I decided to ask them some simple questions about the background of my character, questions that I felt were pertinent to the plot. Question number one: Where is my father? The exec answered, ‘Well, he left when you were younger.’ Of course. Okay. Okay. Question number two: In this script, it alluded to my mother not being equipped to operate as a good parent, so why exactly did my little brother and I have to go into foster care? Matter-of-factly, he said, ‘Well, of course, she is on heroin.’

“That could be real, I guess, but I didn’t want to assume that’s what it was. If we are around here assuming that the Black characters in the show are criminals, on drugs, and deadbeat parents, then that would probably be stereotypical, wouldn’t it? That word stereotypical lingered. One of the execs pulled out my resume and began studying it. The other exec wore a smile and was now trying to live up to what they had promised me only a few moments before—‘If there is anything you need, just let us know.’ She said, ‘As you have seen, things move really fast around here, but we are more than happy to connect you with the writers if you have suggestions.’

“‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘that would be great,’ I said, ‘because I’m just trying to do my homework on this. I didn’t know if you guys have decided on all the facts, but maybe there are some things we could come up with, some talent or gift that we can build. Maybe he is really good at math or something. He has to be active. I’m doing my best not to play this character like a victim.’

“I was let go from that job on the next day. I got a phone call from my agent. They decided to go another way. The questions that I [had] asked set the producers on guard.

“My agents at the time told me it might be a while before I got a job acting on screen again…. ‘We are hesitant about sending you out to some people right now because there is a stigma that you are difficult.’ As conflicted as I was before I lost the job, as adamant as I was about the need to speak truth to power, I found myself even more conflicted afterwards. I stand here today knowing that my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa.

“But what do you do when the principles and the standards that were instilled in you here at Howard closed the doors in front of you? Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it.

“Graduating class, hear me well on this day. This day, when you have reached the hilltop and you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.

“When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it. God will move someone that’s holding you back away from the door and put someone there who will open it for you if it’s meant for you. I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory, then you will not regret it.”

I am grateful for heroes in my life, such as Chadwick Boseman. His movies have taught me many things, and the man taught me that character is more important than fame or fortune. I miss him. But I will always remember the legacy he left beh

[i] Black Panther:

  • Production Companies: Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios
  • Director: Ryan Coogler
  • Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler and Joel Robert Cole
  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o
  • Release date: February 16, 2018

[ii] 42:

  • Production Companies: Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment
  • Director: Brian Helgeland
  • Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, T. R. Knight, and Harrison Ford
  • Release date: April 12, 2013

[iii] The last African American to play major league baseball before Jackie Robinson was Moses Fleetwood Walker, who last played in 1884.

[iv] Marshall:

  • Production Companies: Chestnut Ridge Productions, China Wit Media, and Starlight Culture Entertainment
  • Director: Reginald Hudlin
  • Screenwriters: Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff
  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, and Kae Hudson
  • Release date: October 13, 2017

[v] Da 5 Bloods:

  • Production Companies: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Rahway Road Productions
  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Screenwriters: Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo
  • Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, and Chadwick Boseman
  • Release date: June 12, 2020

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