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An Appreciation

Chadwick Boseman knew how to breathe and live ‘Howard forever’

Boseman was more than an actor. He was a griot among thespians.

Chadwick Boseman was a griot among thespians.

That is why it’s difficult to face the reality of saying goodbye to Boseman, a South Carolina-born son of Howard University who soared to vertiginous heights on the wings of his love for Black people. His doesn’t represent the loss of a single book, but an entire library.

Boseman’s seemingly never-ending capacity for excellence shone through his roles in biopics, depicting Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall. But when I look at Boseman through the eyes of a critic who graduated, like Boseman, from Howard, I see an embodiment of lineage and legacy. That is what makes the pain of his death from colon cancer at age 43 radiate through my bones, because his work feels like the apotheosis of a project that began decades before his birth.

What Boseman accomplished in his too-short career as an actor came from an earnest embrace of Black theatrical tradition as cultivated at the home of the Howard Players, the student acting company founded at the university in 1919 (Boseman was a former president of the group). Within Boseman, the spirits of Howard’s dramatic luminaries converged — the rigor and dignity of Ossie Davis, the radical defiance of Amiri Baraka, the homespun egalitarianism of Pearl Cleage, the self-possessed elegance of his teacher and mentor, Phylicia Rashad. He was the idyllic apex of what an actor molded from Howard’s conservatory could be, an old soul in a modern man’s body, always willing to take chances and expand the Black imagination, whether it be through his exuberant red carpet style, his easy, toothy grin, the glint in his eye or the humanity he unspooled on screen as he inhabited one singular, history-making Black man after another.

That is what made Boseman so special — he carried the legacy of a people and an institution as though it weighed no more than a feather, allowing his adoration of Black people and Blackness at large to be the cloud on which he floated, the element that propelled his work into something that could never be contained within an Oscar statuette, a reward he never received.

Boseman’s seemingly never-ending capacity for excellence shone through his roles in biopics, depicting Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. But when I look at Boseman through the eyes of a critic who graduated, like Boseman, from Howard, I see an embodiment of lineage and legacy.

It felt as though we were just witnessing a small sampling of Boseman’s obvious and sprawling artistic capacity. His breakout film role was portraying Robinson in 42 (2013), but his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Howard was in directing. He was a playwright. Boseman penned Deep Azure, which was inspired by the Sept. 1, 2000, killing of Prince Jones, a fellow Howard University student slain by a Prince George’s County police officer who shot him in the arm and back. Deep Azure debuted as a production of Congo Square Theatre Company in Chicago in 2005. When it did, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones found the work so impressive that he suggested Boseman could become Congo Square’s “grand young muse.”

Boseman was the sort of movie star one could imagine returning to New York for a triumphant and credible starring turn on Broadway, following in the footsteps of his British American Drama Academy benefactor Denzel Washington. And it wouldn’t have been a situation where audiences paid Broadway ticket prices to see a splashy actor pad his resume with some gravitas, but rather a homecoming, because the stage is where Boseman’s career began.

It’s just one of the possibilities for Boseman’s future that will never be realized, along with the opportunity to see him marshal his many talents — for leadership, empathy and acting — to direct a film of his own. I have not seen it yet, but I suspect Boseman’s turn in the Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (directed by theater veteran George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a frequent interpreter of Wilson’s work) will leave us heartbroken anew for what could have been.

And yet he was never so saintly that he wasn’t real.

When Boseman was promoting his cop thriller 21 Bridges, the film’s press tour took him to London, where he appeared on the Graham Norton Show with Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Colman and Richard Ayoade. Over and over in ABC’s tribute to Boseman, which aired Sunday night after Black Panther, Boseman’s co-stars praised his skill and generosity as a scene partner, his ability to elevate the game of everyone around him because of his sheer dedication to the craft. Seated beside Ayoade on the Graham Norton set, the two men provided a study in contrasts. Boseman was in full control of a confident and easygoing American brand of cool, dapping up Norton on his way to the host’s famous red sofa while sporting a textured black leather trench coat and a patterned black-and-white tunic. Ayoade, best known for his role in The IT Crowd, was quintessentially British — a bit halting and shrinking, nebbishy and self-deprecating. And yet the two men got along so famously and with such ease that I found myself wishing for a buddy comedy starring the two of them. Boseman possessed an innate magnanimity that would not allow him to upstage someone else, a skill he put on full display in Black Panther as he played big brother to Letitia Wright’s Shuri.

Boseman seemed to take the best of Sidney Poitier — his regality, the intellect he poured into every performance — and have fun with it. When he hosted Saturday Night Live, Boseman turned in a Black Jeopardy sketch that surpasses Tom Hanks’ in its ability to both distill something true about race in America while also delivering something lasting in a medium intended as pop culture ephemera. Sometimes, he didn’t need minutes, but a mere moment — a smirk he shared with Black Panther co-star Michael B. Jordan at the 2019 Oscars when Green Book won best picture was enough to sum up the amused, unsurprised resignation of every person who’s ever witnessed Black excellence lose out to white mediocrity. That too, endeared him to us.

As Da 5 Bloods’ Stormin’ Norman, Boseman is preserved on celluloid as “our Malcolm and our Martin,” forever young, guiding his Black countrymen from the grave. Though his portrayal of T’Challa made him an icon, it’s Stormin’ Norman who comes the closest to immortalizing who Boseman was in real life — a man who remained a wellspring of compassion, purpose, inspiration and divine grace even when submerged in a terrifying miasma of American violence, chaos and anti-Black contempt. A youngster who could offer the genuine solace of an elder, even if he never actually got to become one.

Boseman is gone, joining his Get On Up co-star Nelsan Ellis as another prematurely and cruelly called to the fraternity of ancestry. So we say goodbye, knowing that a future generation will spawn a talent they’re bound to describe as their Chadwick Boseman.

Rest well to a king who showed us, through his life and work, what it truly meant to be, to breathe, to live “Howard forever.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.