Chadwick Boseman Is Telling America's Greatest Stories
The Black Panther star speaks out on a watershed moment for Hollywood and for himself.
BY Elvis Mitchell | Jun 6, 2018 | Film & TV
A long time ago (well, forty-plus years) in a galaxy far, far away (spiritually, if not literally), the young writer-director George Lucas was doing preproduction work on his upcoming space fantasy. As author Dale Pollock recounts in the book Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars “was considering what would have been some radical casting ideas: He considered Japanese movie star Toshiro Mifune for Ben Kenobi and thought of having a Eurasian girl play Leia. He interviewed several black actors for Han Solo and almost chose a young performer named Glynn Turman. Lucas was aware that if he developed the love interest between Han and Leia, an interracial romance could cause problems.” As Lucas himself acknowledged to Pollock, “I didn’t want to make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinnerat that point, so I sort of backed off.”
Such thinking now feels not just antiquated but also dumb, at a time when black narratives command such attention, creatively and commercially. From Get Outto Atlanta to Girls Trip to Insecure to Black-ish to The Chi to Moonlight, the specificity of black storytelling has been hitting the film and television bull’s-eye, just as R&B and hip-hop have been doing for decades in music. With $1.3 billion and counting at the global box office, Black Panther—African-American director, African-American writers, almost exclusively black cast, African setting—is only the crest of a bigger wave. And how appropriate is it that Kendrick Lamar, who contributed the soundtrack to the film’s galvanizing mosaic, just won rap’s first Pulitzer prize? “We have to be clear here: When a barrier is broken, it inspires everybody—knowing anybody can do and be anything,” says Kamala Harris, who paraphrases a key line from the film: “This is about building bridges, not walls.”
Harris can speak knowingly about barriers as only the second African-American woman ever to serve in the United States Senate. She can speak knowingly about Black Panther as an unabashed comic-book fan. “Oh my God,” she says with a laugh. “I grew up loving comics, from Archie to Batman. I love superheroes.” (Of all the reasons to appreciate Harris, her fandom is high on the list, at least for this voter.) She points out that Chadwick Boseman—a fellow Howard University alum—had a proven track record in this area even before starring as Black Panther’s T’Challa, having already played the real-life heroes Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get On Up), and, most recently, Thurgood Marshall (Marshall). As Harris sees it, the main difference between Marshall and T’Challa is that “one had a briefcase and the other did not.”
“I think Chadwick—and I told him this at the premiere—I think every step he’s taken in his career has led him to this part,” says Lena Waithe, creator of Showtime’s The Chi. (The Emmy she received last year for her writing on Master of None was a landmark of its own—the first comedy-writing Emmy won by a black woman.) “He’s obviously made conscious decisions to play very complicated black men based on real people. And I think in playing T’Challa, he had to really create something, and I think he had to make it his own. I know he’s been living with it for a very long time. But he was the right person for it. You know how we all said Halle Berry”—the first black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role—“was the right person to open up the door that she did at the Oscars? I feel like Chadwick was the right man to be that role, to be that character. There’s something about Chadwick that’s very strategic, that’s very contemplative. He’s a little like Barack Obama.”
“Oh, no, not that one,” Boseman says when I relay Waithe’s comments, shrugging off the heavyweight analogy. Still, he laughs at my joke about him starring in 44: The Barack Obama Story, agreeing that it sounds horribly plausible. “You can’t imagine how many biopics I have been offered,” he says. “I’m not sure even T’Challa could get over the stack [of scripts].”
We are sitting together at a Japanese restaurant nestled in the Hollywood Hills; he says grace over dinner. Given to an easy chuckle, Boseman, forty-one, is thoughtful without being overly earnest. His graciousness doesn’t supersede a desire for privacy and—possibly—a need to keep a few pieces of himself away from public view to protect some part of his artisan’s perquisites. Dressed in black, with a gleaming pair of white Nikes, he managed to glide across the room to our table without causing a selfie riot—an act that seemed to require its own kind of superpower. It’s as if he were determined not to be seen unless he wanted to be.
He does marvel—if you’ll pardon the expression—at the sonic boom caused by the entry of Black Panther into the stratosphere. As of this writing, the global welcome that the film received (it’s now the ninth-highest-grossing picture of all time worldwide) has extended its embrace to Avengers: Infinity War, in which T’Challa’s hidden African nation of Wakanda serves as the climactic battleground.
Before Black Panther’s release, Boseman had expected some bridges to be constructed by virtue of the film’s likely success–just not enough to reach, figuratively speaking, from Hollywood to almost every corner of the globe. “As we premiered the movie in Korea, in London, after the L. A. premiere, we started to see how the world was going to receive it,” he says. “We knew that a lot of black people were excited about the movie. But I think when we started to see the response overseas, that’s when I started to go, ‘Oh, wow, this is a big deal.’” It opened at number one in India, Brazil, the UK, Australia, and South Korea, and it passed the $100 million mark in China (despite some lukewarm local reviews).
“I loved Black Panther. It’s the kind of movie the whole world was waiting to see,” says Quentin Tarantino, who knows a thing or two about international cinema and global box office.
“Studios will very often tell you that movies with a black lead are not going to work overseas,” Boseman continues. “So I think that was the thing for me—this means something everywhere in the world. I know at that point it could actually change how studios respond to our movies. You can no longer say definitively, ‘Black movies don’t work [outside of the U. S.].’”
All the same, Boseman is realistic about the possibility—some might even say probability—that the studios will need further persuading: “I think there’s more work to be done. . . . There have been clear examples of movie stars that are not given the same respect of even marketing a movie internationally. If you see an international poster, very often, even though the movie will have a black star leading the movie, they won’t have that movie star featured prominently on the poster. That is because of that belief of ‘We can’t sell this movie [internationally] if we put that person in front.’ I’ve had arguments with people about that.”
I asked if Boseman himself had experienced this kind of snub. “They attempted to do it,” he says matter-of-factly, though characteristically declining to name names. “I don’t need to say. This is not a moment where I went, ‘Ha ha, I told you so.’” He laughs. “I don’t need to say that, because they know what they did.” It’s important to note there is no anger in his voice here—rather, a courtly steeliness. He adds, “People don’t know the kinds of battles you have to go through when you’re in that position [as a black movie star]. So if I’m saying I’ve gone through those battles, I can only imagine the battles that people before me have gone through.” Will Black Panther change this? he asks rhetorically. “I can’t say that. It’s up to us to claim that thing, and it’s up to the other side to recognize the truth in what just happened. As long as the work is of quality, there should be no reason something shouldn’t sell.”
Given this history, and the importance of superheroes to American culture and to African-Americans in particular (more on that in a moment), bringing Black Panther to the screen was a freighted proposition. Chris Rock, as always, offers some perspective. “Let me tell you a little story,” he says. “It goes back a ways. Remember the movie Blankman?” Perhaps not: It was a 1994 superhero spoof starring and cowritten by Damon Wayans. “This is when Damon Wayans was hotter than hot,” Rock continues. “He had done all that great stuff on In Living Color, and even Mo’ Money”—a 1992 Wayans movie—“had made . . . well, some money. This is when Damon was Tiffany Haddish. . . . Anyway, there’s a black director I know who was offered Blankman, and he gave it some thought because, you know, this was a big deal. There are not that many chances to do big-budget black movies. And this director finally said, ‘No, you have to do the serious one before you do the funny one, before you do the joke version of a black- superhero movie.’” Rock was gratified by what Boseman and director Ryan Coogler achieved with Black Panther. “What Ryan did was bring subtlety to this movie, the kind of thing where a black person watching it can feel, ‘I know a black person directed this movie.’ You see that subtlety in what Chadwick does onscreen, too, playing a hero in front of another black person.”
This observation engages Boseman, who responds, “There’s a shorthand on certain cultural moments that you don’t have to talk about [with a black director]. But in this case, we did have to talk about some things culturally because we were literally creating a culture. We also had on the set people from various places in the diaspora, whether from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Trinidad, South Africa, or different places in the States. There were discussions in a way that there wouldn’t have been if this was totally an African-American cast. In a lot of cases, we were finding similarities cross-culturally. It was a sense of each of us still trying to create this culture together. Because we were trying to create Wakanda, it was a unique experience.”
That speaks to another reason Black Panther stands out: It breaks from the typical Africa of fantasy films—and, more to the point, comics. Here, for the first time, a white savior isn’t dashing through the veld to rescue natives, apes, and children. (Don’t forget, they still make Tarzan movies.) In the Panther’s debut in any iteration—1966’s issue number 52 of Fantastic Four—he fought the titular quartet to a standstill, appearing as a mystery figure testing Reed Richards et al. before he joined forces with them. It made a kind of sense that the Panther’s moral compass was ambiguous at first, since black characters in sixties Marvel comics were so often rendered in a color that could best be described as Cafeteria Meatloaf Gray. African-American readers were often puzzled as to what race they were supposed to be.
Growing up as an avid comics reader myself, I consumed everything I could get my hands on. But the square DC comics of that era looked like they were drawn in a bank, to paraphrase a line from Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. It was the Marvel stars who seemed to sweat, and whose clothes didn’t quite fit, who caught my imagination. Maybe it was the way that much of the plotting seemed derived from radio serials, the further-back-in-the-day version of the back-in-the-day TV soap operas that black families called “the stories.” That infusion of costume-clad melodrama—and the bold work of artists such as Steve Ditko, who turned Spider-Man’s Queens into a village of dour, gaunt Eastern Europeans walking with their heads down to avoid catching too much healthy sunlight—allowed African-American kids entry into the text. What black kid couldn’t empathize with a physically gifted person sacrificing himself for the greater good?
In my neighborhood, in inner-city Detroit, comics weren’t part of geek culture. Reading comics was seen as an act of rebellion—the tough kids were the fans, kids whose epic underachievement at school was seen as a sign of stupidity when in reality they just weren’t stimulated by the material. I can still remember the excitement of guys running around the neighborhood with comics containing the Marvel house ad heralding the arrival of the Panther before he made his “Is he friend or foe?” debut.
Comics were the connective tissue for us, and T’Challa was a corrective to marginalization and misrepresentation, a needed slap in the face for all the white heroes and heroines who prowled Africa’s jungles, always looking, it seemed, for other white people. As a result, the character, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, became the prize black comics writers eagerly grabbed when he got his own title in 1973, fashioning a mythology over subsequent decades that ended up informing the movie.
Boseman mentions that he clicked with Marshall director Reginald Hudlin—who also wrote a run of Black Panther comics in the 2000s—partly because of their shared interest in comic-book narrative. As a child in South Carolina, Boseman wasn’t drawn to the stage by the need to act but rather by an interest in storytelling. “I was more so of the mind of the director and the writer,” he says. “I didn’t want to be onstage and I didn’t want to be on camera. Not at all. My older brother, he’s a dancer. He danced for Alvin Ailey, for Martha Graham. I grew up watching him take dance classes; he was also in plays. I would sit in the audience with my mom, who came to pick him up from a musical he was doing. And we got there early. I was sitting, watching the director, and I was more interested in what he was doing than the performance onstage. How he was talking to the performers. And how he would change certain things or why he would change certain things. I didn’t know that was an interest of mine; it didn’t register that it was something I wanted to do. I just enjoyed the process.”
He did write and direct a play in high school. “At that age, in my opinion, you don’t even know what a play is. You’re copying without full knowledge of how it works.” Even so, the experience led to an epiphany. “After a certain point, it came into my head: ‘Oh, you actually love this. There’s something about that process of creating something that you love.’ It took me being at Howard and having a directing advisor and teacher who didn’t believe that you could learn how to be a director without learning how an actor thinks and works and how to talk to them. I became an actor because I was just trying to learn the whole process.”
After graduating from Howard in 2000, Boseman spent some time doing theater in New York—he has continued to write and direct plays—before moving to Los Angeles. He worked steadily enough, doing the rounds of CSIs and Law & Orders and making an impact on the ABC Family series Lincoln Heights. He eventually caught the attention of Quentin Tarantino, who considered him for the lead in Django Unchained before going with an established star. (“I picked Jamie Foxx, and I couldn’t be happier about that,” says Tarantino. “But if I’d picked an unknown, it would have been Chadwick!”)
Boseman’s breakout role came in 2013 with 42, the first in his “biopic trilogy.” It’s a fascinating subject, his approach to heroism, his skill in conveying the push-and-pull in these characters: Jackie Robinson’s refusal to smile to give comfort to those judging him; James Brown’s voice trapped just above his solar plexus (there’s a bizarre suspense in wondering, “Will the Godfather of Soul ever actually take a breath?”); Thurgood Marshall’s careful reading of a room before speaking. Then add T’Challa to the mix, with his regal bearing but constant bouncing on his feet, like someone whose every fiber tells him the battle is about to be joined. All of these men have miens that suggest they know the entire black world is paying attention to them. Boseman is especially deft at displaying the vulnerabilities these men reveal to those who know them best. Watch the way he transmits affection and need as Marshall during an intimate phone call with his wife. Watch T’Challa’s body language with his mother, when we see the drop in his shoulders as he becomes the boy she raised to take the throne, or notice the way Robinson looks at his hands constantly, the recognition that they’re among the few allies he can count on.
I bring up his gift for uncovering those conflicts within men in the public eye, that tension between watchfulness and release, and Boseman seems momentarily taken aback but quickly warms to the subject. “It’s not something that I’m conscious of, I’ll tell you that. If you’re talking about the characters that are renowned, there’s always a struggle of trying to live up to expectations—and a reality. There’s always ‘Who is the man behind this?’ I find that those characters are interesting because there’s something to reveal. There is something to unmask. Certainly, if you’re playing a superhero, there’s always going to be something to unmask there, too, even if he’s not hiding in the same way.”
The idea of having a foot in two different realms does resonate with him, though. “There is that double consciousness that [black people] live in at times—there’s the natural consciousness and then the awareness that you are black in this world,” he says. “Very often, black actors who are looking for roles that are going to be leading roles or roles that have impact have to look at roles that were written for white characters. I’ve always felt it was important to play these historical figures. There is something about that experience that is profound, a profound expression of humanity to show what James Brown went through, what Thurgood Marshall went through, what Jackie Robinson went through as African- Americans. Because you get that double consciousness. The character is not existing separate from his blackness. I feel like our stories are some of the best American stories because of that.”
Boseman knows how high the risk of failure is—both for the men he plays and for himself, in taking on such high- degree-of-difficulty roles. “The scariest two for me were Panther and Get On Up. With 42, it was the first time I had done that particular thing—had a role where it was like, ‘This could make you or break you.’ But I also had Harrison there.” That would be Harrison Ford, who costarred as Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who signed Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. “I felt like—and maybe this is just in my head to make me feel better—a lot of people were focused on him. Nobody knew who I was.”
As well, for all the importance of his legacy, Robinson resides safely (from an actor’s perspective) in the past; most 42 audiences knew him only from grainy film clips. Embodying a performer whose memory and influence are still immediate—Brown, who died in 2006, was not only the hardest-working man in show business but also, according to most of the Internet, the most sampled man in show business—proved far more daunting. Black audiences in particular might have turned on Boseman had he made one funky misstep. “My first response was ‘Don’t do it,’” Boseman says. “But I kept getting these signs telling me, ‘You should at least try it.’ For me, it felt dangerous, and it became the reason why I wanted to jump off the cliff with it. Because it was so dangerous. I think having a challenge like that, I find it kind of speaks to me. Panther rivaled Get On Up because it’s such a huge idea. I think the challenge of each one becomes more what I’m focused on than the fact that it could define me or set me back. Or set me forward.”
What’s funny about this conversation—and it’s funny because it’s sad—is that nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, we’re still talking about the rarity of an actor of color offering a take on heroism. And with Black Panther, as with all black film achievement—going back at least to the surprise success of 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s feature debut as writer-director-actor—we have to deal with a crucial disturbing whisper: the notion that such triumphs are flukes, unrepeatable phenomena on the order of having a hundred-dollar bill blow smack into your face while you walk down the street. A screenwriter friend of mine—a white one!—told me that only a few years ago, when he pitched a film about another black comic-book hero, studio executives actually claimed that “black people don’t want to see themselves in action movies,” citing market research. This kind of thinking, if you can call it thinking, may be one reason so many black performers reached out to Boseman in the wake of Black Panther’s success: Denzel Washington, Stevie Wonder, Samuel L. Jackson, and Laurence Fishburne, among others. “I had at least a two-hour conversation with Denzel after he saw the movie,” Boseman recalls. “He saw all of us onscreen and it was like, ‘Yes, finally! This is what I’ve been working for. ’. . . When you see someone in his position—a star, a leader—don’t take it for granted that they’re struggling against the system to hold that position in order to express things a certain way without compromise. Think about the things they’ve turned down in order to be that person.”
Another memorable encounter was with Dave Chappelle, whom Boseman connected with at this year’s NBA All-Star Game. “Dave went on a rant. He was like a borderline preacher, borderline comedian, borderline—I don’t know what else. But he was talking about the movie, what it meant, in a way that I was, like, in awe of him. He’s a very deep person.” Chappelle’s insights granted Boseman a new perspective on the film’s accomplishments. “Sometimes you only get something after an audience responds to it.” What those insights were, however, he declines to say: “Some things that people say, you just have to take it and use it. My grandmother used to be like, ‘You can’t let the devil know your plans.’ Because if you say it out loud, that takes something away from it.” He adds, “It’s a beautiful moment when the people you revere are affected by you.”
Of course it’s Oprah Winfrey—who else do you turn to?—who so evocatively summarizes why Black Panther matters. “It reminded me of the time when I was a young girl growing up on welfare with a single mom in Milwaukee,” she says, “going to the drugstore at the beginning of every month waiting for Seventeenmagazine to arrive and spending my fifty cents on Seventeen magazine. The entire time I was reading it, from the time I was fifteen to seventeen, never once did I see a black girl. There was a model named Colleen Corby, who was as close to a black girl as I’d ever seen. She was not black at all, or mixed race or anything—she was just more olive-skinned, brunette, and had not quite a pointed nose. And I took all of the pictures of Colleen Corby and placed them on my wall, because it was as close to anybody who looked like me that I could find in images in our culture. So I thought about that while I was watching Black Panther. This generation won’t have to look for a Colleen Corby, because they have themselves reflected in the greatest, brilliant, elegant majesty that anyone can imagine.”
Winfrey is referring not just to Boseman’s T’Challa but also to Wakanda’s female warriors—their Afro-futurist armor and weapons, their natural beauty and hairstyles. “The true joy for me was getting Black Panther shown in my school in South Africa,” Winfrey goes on, referring to the school for girls she opened in 2007. “Just today, I was talking to the freshman class who experienced [Black Panther]. And their comments made me weep. It’s the first time I understood, personally, the magnitude of this film on our culture and the lives of young women in particular. So the girls at my school, who’ve all come from challenged backgrounds and lives filled with trauma and loss, came out of that movie feeling like warriors. And every girl had something different to say. . . . What I loved most was when one of them said, ‘Because we don’t have to be identified with pieces of hair and wigs and extensions and weaves that say we’re not enough.’ [The movie] changed the way they saw themselves. They felt validated in a way they have never been, or even imagined in their lives.”
Joy aside, these kinds of testimonials translate into a lot of psychic responsibility for any single performer to shoulder, even one with Boseman’s abilities as a stealth actor, getting himself in and out of public places without garnering attention—which must take its own toll. Back at dinner in the Hollywood Hills, I pose a lighter question: In the wake of record-breaking success, didn’t Boseman treat himself to . . . something? “I haven’t,” he says with a laugh, and then a sigh, before giving in to the question. “It’s a car,” he confesses. “Two different ones.” What models? After a little massaging, he admits to one—a Tesla. But he won’t reveal the other. A superhero has got to keep a few secrets.
From: Esquire US