From Jim Prevor’s Perishable Podcast
(To listen, please click here)
Chadwick Boseman, the actor who died at only 43 years of age, played many important and iconic roles. There was Jackie Robinson, the baseball player who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He played James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul.” He played Thurgood Marshall, who argued important cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, and ultimately became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
These starring roles represented a kind of “Who’s Who” of black culture and history in America.
He was most famous, though, for starring in Black Panther. This film, from Disney’s Marvel imprint, earned more than $1.3 billion at the box office and became the first movie of its kind — a mass market superhero movie led by a black cast. Boseman played the role of T’Challa, who would become the King of Wakanda. He was the one known as the Black Panther.
Most of Boseman’s most prominent roles came after he became sick. Upon his death, his family issued a statement:
“Chadwick was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, and battled with it these last 4 years as it progressed to stage IV.
A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much. From Marshall to Da 5 Bloods, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy.
It was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther.”
Of course, his death is enormously sad. A man of such talents struck down in his prime. So, it is not surprising that the Internet has been filled with every co-star, colleague and luminary singing his praises.
Black Panther was an enjoyable movie for everyone, but it was especially important for black children. There is value is seeing people like yourself, as a King, as a super hero.
I do not know if it is likely, but it would be very good if, in time, the real example of Boseman’s true life could turn out to be more important than the beyond-reality powers of Black Panther.
The first, and perhaps most important, thing to note about Chadwick Boseman is that his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman, are still married. They raised Chadwick and his brothers in a small city named Anderson in South Carolina. Chadwick acknowledged that he experienced racism, had been called racist names, he even explained that he been run off the road by trucks flying the Confederate flag.
But, growing up, he went home every day to his family. To his brothers, his mother and father. They weren’t rich, but his mom was a nurse, and his father worked at a textile factory and had a side gig managing an upholstery business.
While Chadwick Boseman is honored for being exceptional, it is worth noting how even simple things in one’s surroundings can make an extraordinary difference.
Family structure has been collapsing in America, especially in the black community. By 2011, fully 72% of black babies born in America were born to unmarried mothers. Consider the fact that many couples divorce after they have children, and one realizes that Chadwick Boseman was born into a superhero black family. One that sustained marriage and a nuclear family when few others did.
This engagement was not just a matter of blood or abstract fact. An article on The Netline pointed to his parent’s deep involvement in Chadwick’s life:
Leroy and Carolyn were both heavily involved in Boseman’s career, as they frequently supported Chadwick when he was on set. As Chadwick prepared to perform a stunt during 42’s filming, Leroy protested because he was scared for his son’s safety.
At the time, Chadwick was 35, but it didn’t prevent his father from showing concern. The film’s director, Bryan Helgeland, stopped filming until the older Boseman felt comfortable about his son’s safety.
Chadwick’s parents were around during Black Panther’s filming, but Chadwick joked that didn’t let them see anything dangerous. He told BET.com:
‘We laughed about that too. He definitely came to the set. It’s an experience where if you have your mom and dad with you, you want them to experience this thing. It’s something that connects you to who you are. This is a family experience. It’s a family movie.’ ”
The second important thing to note about Chadwick Boseman is that, beyond his own family, he was supported in his rise by the broader black community.
Chadwick attended Howard University, a historically black college. He studied there under Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show. She saw in him talent. Brett Malec, writing for the E!-online website, explained what happened:
“…he was studying directing, not acting, at Howard University. Howard required directing students to take acting classes and one summer, Boseman’s teacher,The Cosby Show star Phylicia Rashad, wanted him to enter a summer course at Oxford. When Boseman couldn’t pay for the summer program abroad, Rashad enlisted a friend to help out with Boseman’s tuition.
The Marshall actor wouldn’t learn until sometime later that it was none other than the Training Day star who generously provided the funds.
“I’ve basically been holding this secret my whole career. When I came back, I got a beneficiary letter and it said Denzel Washington paid for you,” Boseman recounted in 2018 during a Tonight Show interview with Jimmy Fallon. “I was like, ‘What?!’ I never wanted to say that until I met him.”
Boseman and Washington finally met in person at the 2018 NYC premiere of Black Panther, and their exchange was sweet and hilarious. According to Boseman, when he introduced himself and told the story about Oxford, Washington cracked, “Oh so that’s why I’m here? You owe me money. I came to collect!”
It reminds us of countless examples of people who have seen potential in their kinsmen and supported them. Alexander Hamilton was sent to America and Kings College (now Columbia University) by a group on the Caribbean island of St. Croix after a hurricane decimated it, and they recognized he had potential that could be realized with education and opportunity. So Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington saw in their kinsman potential that could be realized, and they invested to make it happen.
Third, and finally, it is important to note the extraordinary strength of character Chadwick Boseman exhibited. The reference his family made in the post after his death to surgeries and chemotherapy hint at how difficult things were for Chadwick… for years.
The pain, the exhaustion and his insistence that it all be kept secret… he exhibited the kind of quiet dignity that is, in fact, reminiscent of many of the characters he portrayed.
We live now in the time of the “Black Lives Matter” protests. Nobody who is familiar with American history can do anything but hope that these protests succeed, that they lead to less racism and more success for the black community.
Yet, in looking at Chadwick Boseman’s story, one sees elements very similar to those that led to the success of other ethic groups. Within the lifetime of people still living, six million Jews were thrown into ovens at the hands of the “highly cultured” Germans. Yet the Jews, with strong families and an ethos favoring education and investment, came to prosper. More successful and established German Jews in America invested to help Eastern European Jews as they arrived.
The Japanese were literally placed in camps in America. They lost billions in property due to being unable to operate their businesses and farm their land. Their lives were put on hold while opportunities abated. Again though, with a strong family structure and culture of mutual aid, the Japanese now are more successful than the average American.
I’ve been reading almost every comment written about Chadwick Boseman. They are, virtually without exception, admiring and kind. What I cannot find, however, is any acknowledgement of the crucial ingredients that led to his achievements.
Everything we know tells us that Chadwick Boseman would have been far less likely to make it to Howard University if his parents had never married… or his father ran off after impregnating his girlfriend… or his mother had never gone to school long enough to become a nurse.
Chadwick Boseman would have had much more difficulty making a success out of his life if people of the same heritage, like Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington, didn’t work together to help one of their own.
Finally, when confronted with horrible calamities, like disease, Chadwick Boseman could have just quit. But he suffered through great difficulty to achieve so very much.
So, in a world of marches for policy changes and attitude shifts, the example of Chadwick Boseman stands to tell us a different story — that success comes mostly from family and extended family and personal effort.
Marches and riots can do damage to lives and physical property, but, despite their righteous call to improve racial equality, their biggest detriment is that they are a distraction to the real lessons that need to be learned.
They teach children that success is something only outsiders can bestow. Yet the truth is that success has to be earned. Family and community contribute greatly to success because they help determine individual behavior.
The Black Panther story includes a Shakespearian, or maybe Freudian, battle over the throne of Wakanda. Michael B. Jordan plays Killmonger, T’Challa’s cousin who grew up without family in an American housing project. In a piece titled The Power of “Black Panther” Is Black Family, author Kofi Outlaw explains:
It’s important to remember that Killmonger is never depicted as being less intelligent or strong than his African cousins — quite the opposite, in fact. Killmonger is repeatedly shown in the film to be just as cunning and powerful as T’Challa, but what ultimately determines their respective fates is family: T’Challa is saved and redeemed by his family, while Killmonger has no true family ties, and is consumed by the pain of that emptiness and loss.
It is useful to remember that family ties cannot be created by government. So if family is key, the protesters in the streets call for policies that cannot meet that primary need. Indeed T’Challa says to Killmonger “Your heart is full of hatred. You are not fit to be king.”
The protesters in the streets are angry. They look for others to solve their problems, or they just look for vengeance. Neither path will bring progress for the next generation.
ABC celebrated the legacy of Chadwick Boseman by showing the Black Panther film followed by an ABC News Special titled, “Chadwick Boseman – A Tribute for a King.” The truth, though — and a spectacular one it is — is that Chadwick Boseman was not a King. He was black kid from the south who could have easily fallen into the underclass. He was saved by the triumvirate that define the opportunity America has always offered: An intact family that cared for, loved him and tried to help him succeed. An extended family of his own community that recognized his talent and potential and invested to see it realized. Finally, by his own discipline and diligence, he quietly applied himself to achieve great things.
Chadwick Boseman’s life points to the importance of family, community and personal effort. If you really want to look below the surface, Chadwick’s life is filled with lessons.
Are we willing to learn? Are we willing to listen? Are we willing to acknowledge the truth?