Born on 29 November 1976 in Anderson, South Carolina, Chadwick Boseman’s journey towards the big-screen was catalysed and shaped by two big influences – one inspirational and one traumatic.
The inspiration was Chadwick’s older brother, Kevin, who, in a family and community where pursuing a career in the arts didn’t really have a precedent, chose to follow his passion and become a dancer. Picking Kevin up from rehearsals in tow with his parents, Young Chadwick got his first tantalising glimpses of life as a performer.
Without knowing it, and by following his own dreams, Kevin opened the door of creative expression for his younger brother.
As Boseman told the New York Times, “Ultimately, I’m here because of what he did.”
The trauma that shaped Boseman’s career path happened while he was teenager.
When a teammate on his high school basketball team was tragically shot and killed, Chadwick started writing to process his feelings.
That writing became a play called Crossroads, and his passion for basketball morphed into a passion for storytelling that eventually led him to New York City and acting.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Chadwick Boseman was anything but an overnight success. Despite a bunch of minor roles in TV series such as ER, CSI:NY and Law & Order, it wasn’t until he was 36 that Boseman landed the film role that would put him on the map and lead directly to his casting as T’Challa in Black Panther.
The year was 2013 and the film was 42, a biopic of pioneering baseball legend, Jackie Robinson, written and directed by Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale, Man on Fire). Despite being relatively unknown, Boseman was cast as Robinson because, in him, Helgeland saw a magnetic stillness and gravitas that 1970s heavyweights such as Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood brought to cinema screens.
These were qualities he tapped into playing Jackie Robinson, a man who was not only an exceptional baseball player but achieved all that he did, in the face of sustained racist abuse, with courage and dignity.
It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Boseman’s powerful and nuanced performance in 42 put him on Marvel Studios’ radar as they started to look for their Black Panther.
But the call to lead Wakanda in the MCU was yet to come.
Having shown producers his leading man potential in 42, Boseman began to carve a niche for himself as a biopic chameleon, first by playing Godfather of Soul, James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up, and later by taking on the role of Thurgood Marshall, a crusading lawyer and the first black Supreme Court Justice, in 2017’s Marshall.
Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), Get On Up, in particular, shows Boseman’s incredible gift for portraying the complex humanity of iconic figures who, in another actor’s hands, could easily have become two-dimensional sketches overwhelmed by the history they made.
Watching Boseman nail Brown’s megawatt personality and swagger, it’s hard to understand why he wasn’t even nominated for that year’s Best Actor Oscar.
Of course, 2018’s Black Panther is now the stuff of cinematic legend – as is Boseman’s commanding performance as T’Challa, the son of the murdered king of Wakanda, called to lead his nation in the face of personal grief and challenges to his rule from within the kingdom, as well as from threats in the wider world.
Speaking of how he found relatable humanity in a superpowered icon, Boseman told the New York Times, “You’re a strong black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great. So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?”
Black Panther showed that representation didn’t just make for a culturally important movie – but that it could meet a world of film-goers hungry to hear different voices take centre stage. Black Panther’s 1.3 billion worldwide box office speaks to that, as does the blockbuster’s status as the second highest grossing superhero movie ever in the US after Avengers: Endgame.
Boseman didn’t just nail his role as Wakanda’s superhero statesman – he was instrumental in ensuring that Black Panther came to the big screen with as much integrity as possible. This started while filming his scenes for Captain America: Civil War alongside veteran South African actor, John Kani (The Lion King, The Ghost and the Darkness). Boseman lobbied not only for the two Wakandans to speak the South African language Xhosa to one another, but he was also adamant that T’Challa should speak with an African accent.
Initially, it was thought that T’Challa might have a British or American accent but then that would suggest (incorrectly) that there had been a colonial presence in Wakandan history with all the negative associations that would bring.
As Boseman said to the Hollywood Reporter in 2018, "It felt to me like a deal breaker. I was like, 'no, this is such an important factor that if we lose this right now, what else are we gonna throw away for the sake of making people feel comfortable?’ Once we decided to do it, we went for it."