Chadwick Boseman, an actor who portrayed such monumental African American figures as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, then became a superstar with the billion-dollar 2018 superhero blockbuster “Black Panther,” died Aug. 28 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 43.
His illness was not widely known, and his unexpected death at the height of his career brought an outpouring of tributes on social media from countless figures in the entertainment and political worlds, including Oprah Winfrey, Oscar winners Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Denzel Washington, and former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
Others expressing sympathies included Martin Luther King III, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who knew Mr. Boseman as a fellow graduate of Howard University. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) ordered that state flags be flown at half-staff in honor of Mr. Boseman, who was from the state.
Mr. Boseman’s role in “Black Panther,” the first superhero film to be nominated for an Oscar for best picture, proved to be a cultural landmark. With a largely Black cast and a Black director (Ryan Coogler), the lavish production broadened and diversified the tradition of fantasy and superhero films.
As T’Challa, the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, Mr. Boseman presided over an advanced civilization that had resisted colonial incursion and, through its technological capabilities, remained hidden from the outside world. He adopted an accent that seemed to be from no country on Earth — pure Wakandan, in other words.
“You might say that this African nation is fantasy,” Mr. Boseman told Time magazine in 2018. “But to have the opportunity to pull from real ideas, real places and real African concepts, and put it inside of this idea of Wakanda — that’s a great opportunity to develop a sense of what that identity is, especially when you’re disconnected from it.”
Mr. Boseman was praised for the depth he brought to his performance. He adopted a distinctive accent for his role as the Wakandan king who reigned as a benevolent monarch, protected by a phalanx of female warriors. When forced by circumstance, he could transform himself into Black Panther, protected not just by his magical black suit but by a power drawn from within.
The film’s special effects-enhanced fights were more than physical combat between Black Panther and his chief antagonist, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan: They were an epic battle for the existence of Wakanda and the preservation of its civilization and independent traditions. Mr. Boseman’s “Wakanda forever” salute, with his arms crossed over his chest, became a cultural touchstone.
The film was a huge box-office hit, with more than $1.3 billion in worldwide ticket sales. Mr. Boseman fully recognized that his role as T’Challa/Black Panther represented something more than just the escapades of a cinematic superhero who could deflect bullets and pull a wheel off a speeding car. “Black Panther” became a symbol of pride for many Black moviegoers who had never before seen a superhero on the screen who looked like them.
“Most African Americans have had a moment where they’re like, ‘I know I’m of African descent — but I don’t have that connection,’ ” Mr. Boseman told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. “That’s something that needs to be healed. That’s something that’s broken and has to be made whole.”
Virtually unknown until he portrayed Robinson in 2013’s “42,” about the integration of baseball in the 1940s, Mr. Boseman went on to play other historical figures, including Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in “Get on Up” (2014) and Marshall in a 2017 film about the civil rights lawyer who became the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Among those paying tribute to Mr. Boseman was actress Angela Bassett, who played his mother in “Black Panther.” She wrote on Instagram that during the film’s premiere party two years ago: “Chadwick reminded me of something. He whispered that when I received my honorary degree from Howard University, his alma mater, he was the student assigned to escort me that day. And here we were, years later as friends and colleagues, enjoying the most glorious night ever!”
Chadwick Aaron Boseman was born Nov. 29, 1976, in Anderson, S.C. His father worked in a textile mill and his mother was a nurse.
In high school, Mr. Boseman played basketball. After one of his teammates was shot and killed, he turned to writing as a form of personal expression. He also became interested in the arts through an older brother, Kevin Boseman, who studied dance and later was a member of the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies.
At Howard University, Mr. Boseman studied playwriting and took acting courses with Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.”
“The only reason I started acting was because I felt like I needed to understand what the actors were doing and their process so that I could better guide them,” Mr. Boseman told Vanity Fair in 2013. “During the course of that, I caught the acting bug.”
After graduating from Howard in 2000, he moved to New York and wrote a number of short plays that incorporated dance and music. He found occasional acting jobs as well, including on the soap opera “All My Children” and in the television series “Law & Order” and “ER.” He had a small part in the 2008 film “The Express,” a biopic about football player Ernie Davis, then had a steady role in the TV drama “Lincoln Heights.”
Mr. Boseman beat out more than 20 other actors to be cast in the role of baseball pioneer Robinson in “42.” (The film’s name derives from Robinson’s uniform number.) Mr. Boseman died on the same day that every major league player wore No. 42 in Robinson’s honor.
He trained for months with baseball coaches and spent hours with Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, to learn about the private side of the stoic player who endured racial taunts as baseball’s first Black player in the 20th century.
“I was thrilled by Chad’s depiction of Jack,” she told Time magazine. “I was moved to tears by the performance. I felt the warmth and passion that Jack and I felt for each other.”
Amid lackluster reviews for the film, Mr. Boseman’s evocative performance was consistently praised.
In 2014, Mr. Boseman appeared in another biopic, “Get on Up,” portraying the equally driven Brown. He performed the singer’s intricate dance moves and learned his songs, although Brown’s voice was heard in the movie. After several other roles, Mr. Boseman starred in “Marshall,” about a 1940s court case that was a key moment in the legal titan’s career.
“I don’t think I would’ve been ready for ‘Black Panther,’ ” Mr. Boseman later said, “had I not done those three roles.”
In “Black Panther,” he stood out in a cast that included Jordan, Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. The film won three Oscars, for music, costumes and production design, and won a Screen Actors Guild award for best acting ensemble.
Mr. Boseman’s performance seeped into popular culture. When he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 2018, he appeared in character as T’Challa in a comedy skit of “Black Jeopardy.”
In May 2018, he was the commencement speaker at Howard University, telling the students to define their lives by a sense of purpose.
“Purpose crosses disciplines,” he said. “Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history.”
While battling his cancer, Mr. Boseman continued to act, appearing as a New York police detective in “21 Bridges” (2019), a soldier in Spike Lee’s recent Netflix production, “Da 5 Bloods,” about soldiers returning to Vietnam, and in a filmed version of playwright August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by George C. Wolfe and scheduled for release later in the year.
Survivors include his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, whom he married shortly before his death; his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman; and two brothers.
Mr. Boseman said he was offered roles in more biopics than he could count, but he felt a special responsibility to depict prominent Black men from the past.
“I’ve always felt it was important to play these historical figures,” he told Esquire in 2018. “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.”
Emily Yahr contributed to this report.
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