CHADWICK BOSEMAN AND AN AFRICAN RACE IN DIRE NEED OF HEROES
By Femi Olugbile
Chadwick Aaron Boseman died a few days ago. He was forty-three years old.
For a forty-three-year-old man who occupied no government office and never did anything, really, in ‘real’ life, the reverberations of his death have resounded all over the world and have left many Africans and several people of other races stunned. For one thing, they had no inkling he was so ill.
At a time when a racist Reality Show actor has America by the jugular and its core values on the ropes, it is understandable that the ability to escape into a world of make believe is a psychological necessity for many people. In the same way that Donald Trump has introduced ‘Alternative Truth’ to the world and fed otherwise reasonable people on it to a point where it is almost impossible for ordinary citizens to decide if there is even anything like ‘The Truth’, or if such things as ‘honour’, ‘chivalry’, ‘civility’ actually exist or are worth pursuing, the alternative world of fiction and dramatic super-heroes has become a favourite escape for young and old. It is also a place to anchor simple old-fashioned moral descriptions such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
All that Chad did in his life was make-believe. He was an actor who achieved great fame and amassed a considerable fortune. But the real drama of his life played out behind the scenes.
Four years ago, Chad was informed by doctors that he had advanced colon cancer. On August 29, 2020, a day after his death, his family sent a tweet from his Twitter account, announcing his death. That tweet became the most ‘liked’ tweet in history, with more than six million ‘likes’.
There is yet another Twitter detail that is worthy of historical note. The final tweet that was personally posted by Chad was sent out on August 12, 2020. It was posted to Senator Kamala Harris, congratulating her on her nomination as Vice Presidential candidate.
Chad was a screen superhero who played the roles of larger-than-life human beings, carrying it off effortlessly. His most memorable role, and the one that travelled farthest and resonated most, was as King T’Challa in Black Panther. The film was released, to world-wide acclaim, in 2018. It was actually part of a five-film deal he entered into with Marvel in 2016.
He had other films under his belt, but it was in Black Panther, which featured T’Challa in his home country, Wakanda, a mineral-endowed country in Africa that could be any of a dozen or more real-life locations on the continent, that he touched a chord in the soul of people everywhere. It invested him with an authority and a burden that was almost mythical, and that he would carry with grace in the all-too-few remaining days of his life. He won several awards for his acting, including the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the MTV Movie and TV Award, the BET Award, and the Black Reel Award.
Two crossed forearms across the chest, the sign of ‘Wakanda Forever’ became a universal symbol of black empowerment and self- confidence.
After Chad’s death, legendary racing champion Lewis Hamilton would repeat the sign in his honour, standing on top of his Formula One car as he claimed another victory.
Chad the real hero matched the superheroes he portrayed in courage and resilience. The greatest exploits of his acting life were carried out after his diagnosis with a terminal illness and his scenes were recorded in what must have been considerable discomfort between bouts of surgery and chemotherapy. And yet he inhabited his characters with conviction and panache that won him a permanent place in the hearts of millions in his audience. He was not only T’Challa of Wakanda. He was Thurgood Marshall, the first black man who surmounted epic obstacles to sit on the Supreme Court of the USA in Marshall. He was, even before the cancer, Jackie Robinson, the first black superstar baseball legend in ‘42’. And he was James Brown, complete with singing and dancing steps, in ‘Get On Up’. Most recently, he was Stormin’ Norman in Spike Lee’s celebrated ‘Da 5 Bloods’.
Some of the most endearing memories of him include his live interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show and his banter with London talk show host Graham Norton. When he came on Trevor’s stage, the audience raised the roof, and Trevor rose to his feet and made the ‘Wakanda’ sign respectfully.
Black Panther carried a unique psychology. The black man was a superhero for a change, and not the faceless figure carrying the bags behind the white hero. The actors proudly flaunted distinctively African accounts. There were strong, independent women who were not side chicks in the story. To quote Chad, ‘Everybody was a hero in their story.’
Whether it was intended that way or not, Wakanda told the story of an Africa and of Africans that might have been, and that may yet be, despite the unsavory happenings in their ‘real’ world. It was the reason why people reacted to Chad the way they did, why black mothers would swoon and bring their little children up to him to touch him in the flesh when they ran into him on the street. He symbolized that promise, and that possibility.
A few months before his death, already looking lean and gaunt, but never without his wistful smile, Chadwick Boseman married his long-standing girlfriend, Taylor Simone Ledward in a secret ceremony. Taylor was at his bedside, with other family members, when he breathed his last on the 28th of August in Los Angeles, California.
May his soul rest in peace.