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Credit: Marvel Studios

From Black Panther to Black icons, Chadwick Boseman could do it all

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Aug 29, 2020, 3:36 PM EDT

After a four year battle with colon cancer, Chadwick Boseman passed away the night of August 28th at the age of 43.

Despite the shocking and deeply tragic end for the prolific actor, Boseman leaves a legacy of roles that defy typecasting. With near yearly releases of films since 2013 (2015 being the sole exception), the actor's widest-reaching role was, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's King T'Challa of Wakanda. While the character became a worldwide phenomenon in 2018's Black Panther, Boseman had already made the role iconic with just a single conversation in the Panther's cinematic debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War seen below:

Reflecting on the actor's filmography, it's easy to see that Boseman brought the same passion and intensity to all of his performances which kept him from being stuck in any one particular category.

At a certain point, every actor runs the risk of being typecast into one archetype or role especially after a star-making turn. Even if they clearly have talent beyond what we, the audience, typically associate them with, the chance to break out and be something different may not always be there.

This wasn’t the case with Boseman — largely because he refused to let himself be limited by his previous work or the expectations audiences placed on him.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Like many actors before him, Boseman began his career in television jumping from one minor role to another, playing a U.S. Marine on several different shows (from CSI: NY to Lincoln Heights and Persons Unknown) as well as a drug dealer on Law & Order. Just when it seemed he would be stuck in the eternal void of procedural dramas, he suddenly appeared in an episode of Fringe as a psychic fighting a ball of lightning. Beyond these roles on TV, he appeared to have a bright future ahead as a theater playwright and director. Look no further than his 2014 bio page for his play Deep Azure. In his own words, he only really came to acting because he wanted to understand what actors were doing. "I realized I'm supposed to do all of it," he said in a 2014 radio interview. "I studied. I studied at Howard. I studied at Oxford." 

His theater plans, however, were put on hold once he made the jump to film. With that transition, it seemed he was in danger of being relegated to another archetype: the Black icon biopic lead.

In a handful of years, Boseman was playing Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. He would've loved the chance to play Jimi Hendrix as well, but didn't get the part. And before his passing, he was set to star and produce a film about Yasuke, an African samurai who was the sole non-Asian person to hold that distinct title. He almost certainly sensed that he was in danger of being typecast for those roles, which might be what led him to take a role in 2016's Gods of Egypt. As the all-knowing god Thoth, he's hamming it up, entranced with a head of lettuce while endless CG clones of him fill the background. Is it a good movie? Not really, but he's clearly having fun getting the chance to sass Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and be as deliberately unhelpful as can be.

Anyone who got to watch Boseman onscreen could tell, instantly, that he loved acting and the breadth of roles he could embody. In a way, that sort of range made him perfect as T’Challa. In Civil War, he's not entirely unlike the Terminator, focused solely on killing Bucky Barnes and avenging his father. He isn't exoticized, but in a film full of well established personalities, he's an enigma who turns out to be the only one capable of seeing the bigger picture once it's revealed to him. When it comes time for the solo Black Panther movie, we get to see all sides of T'Challa and who he is outside of the costume he inhabits and the superhuman feats he can do. During its 2 hour and 14 minute runtime, director Ryan Coogler hops between various genres, with the cast more than game to keep up. As T’Challa, Boseman goes from an emotionally mature Batman to looking like James Bond in a South Korean casino. Compared to other actors in the ensemble, his performance isn't as bombastic, but it allows him to play off everyone else perfectly, from his scene-stealing sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to enemy-turned-friend M'Baku (Winston Duke). 

You could tell that Boseman loved being the Black Panther, hilariously playing T'Challa for a "Black Jeopardy" sketch in Saturday Night Live. Sometime next year, we'll see his final MCU role courtesy of the cartoon series What If...?, where he’ll get to play his T'Challa, but one who is also Star-Lord.

But even the safety of Marvel wasn’t something he was interested in — he headlined 21 Bridges last year just months after Avengers: Endgame, and joined Spike Lee's Netflix ensemble, Da 5 Bloods, earlier this summer. His final role will see him in the film adaptation of August Wilson's play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opposite Viola Davis. 

Chadwick Boseman was a superhero for many and more so than the actual superhero he ended up playing. He didn't just pave the way for other non-white MCU heroes to get their own movies, he also encouraged Black people to pursue their creative endeavors when possible. Whether in the armor of a cat-themed hero or as the speaker at a graduation ceremony, one thing was clear about him: He could do it all, and he loved it very much.

And, to be perfectly, painfully frank, it hurts that we won’t be able to see him do more of what he so passionately embraced.