By David Betancourt
To be Black and to love superheroes is a gift and a curse.
The gift is your Blackness, which so many of us learn will be a defining trait in the preconceived notions of any non-Black gaze that lays eyes on us. It can be Kryptonite to some, or forged into a weapon for good for others. The curse is finding that Blackness in any sort of abundance when you are reading a comic book or watching a superhero movie.
The Black Panther, no matter the medium, always has been and always will be the exception to that rule.
Chadwick Boseman was the embodiment of that exception, giving us the biggest gift any person of color who loves comic-book culture ever received: his portrayal of T’Challa, king of Wakanda, in “Black Panther.” He seemingly obliterated the curse of so many never seeing themselves as a hero – the hero – in the process.
But Boseman was always more than just the Black Panther. Was it his biggest role? Surely. But he handled the task of taking on Black icons so well – from James Brown to Thurgood Marshall – that his casting as the Black superhero that matters most was more certainty than surprise when Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige announced he landed the role in 2014.
Upon receiving the news Friday of Boseman’s passing, an emotional shock to the system in an already unbearable year, I surprisingly did not instantly begin to stream his legendary superhero performance.
Instead I pulled up the trailer for his 2013 film “42,” in which he brilliantly brought to the screen the real-life, gargantuan, soul-searching and taxing moments that followed Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson as he integrated Major League Baseball in 1940s America.
That was my introduction to the actor. His “first appearance” in my mind, if I may borrow a phrase frequently used to identify the first time you meet a new character in a comic.
Watching Boseman as Robinson, taking pitches to the head, stealing bases and hitting home runs, was the equivalent of the Black Panther’s “first appearance” in Fantastic Four No. 52 back in 1966: You knew you were seeing something special. As Boseman’s Robinson walks the dark tunnel toward his dugout with only the scantest of light illuminating the number 42 beneath his broad shoulders, well, his jersey may as well be a cape flapping in the wind.
As Boseman rounds bases after a home run blast with Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard” blaring in the background, I recall telling myself I’d better keep an eye on him. The jolt of swag emitting from the tip of his Brooklyn ball cap was evident. But it was Boseman’s words at the beginning of the “42” trailer that struck an emotional chord with me.
Looking down at his newborn, the actor as Robinson recounts his father abandoning him, while making a promise never to do the same. He whispers to the child: “You will remember me.”
How could we forget? Not after Boseman has given us so much. And especially now that we know what he was going through privately while giving us epic performances.
In February 2018, I moderated a panel at the National Museum of African American History and Culture featuring “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler; Nate Moore, Marvel Studio’s only Black producer at the time; and costume designer Ruth Carter before a screening at the Oprah Winfrey Theater inside.
Boseman wasn’t in attendance, but I didn’t give it a second thought; no one else from the cast was in Washington that night either. Knowing what we know now of his years-long battle with colon cancer, perhaps he was saving his strength for the inspiring commencement speech he would go on to give a few months later at Howard University, his alma mater. In the moment, I was disappointed that I had likely missed out on my one chance to bump into Boseman in D.C. But I told myself I’d catch him on the set of “Black Panther 2.”
I do hope that word of that night made it to Boseman, though. It was special. Even before the Marvel Studios logo began flickering on-screen, you could feel the electricity in the air. A screening of “Black Panther” in the African American Museum, for a Black audience, in a city that for half a century was its own version of Wakanda, with a Howard graduate in the starring role. It felt like Black magic.
Boseman was a South Carolina-born African American man playing a Black king of an African paradise. For so many Black people here in the states, we know reaching back to reflect on where we come from does not begin with American slavery. Our true beginnings are in the African motherland, though we often don’t know exactly where. Boseman’s King T’Challa, although fantasy, was a beautiful reminder that we are more than what U.S. history says we are.
The brilliance of “Black Panther” was not that it made a billion dollars. Any well-executed Marvel Studios movie with a passionate fandom can do that. The film’s true power, fueled by Boseman, was reminding Black people there is more to our story than what we’ve been told. The imaginative possibilities of who we are and where we come from are limitless.
Boseman died on the 103rd birthday of Jack Kirby, the godfather of comic-book artists who was brave enough to co-create the world of Wakanda and its one-of-a-kind Black superhero ruler with late Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee. That only adds to the cosmic certainty that being the Black Panther was the actor’s destiny.
August 28 was also Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball this year – another role fate seemed to have specifically set aside for Boseman.
If you scripted such a dramatic departure from the mortal plane for Hollywood, it might be shrugged off as too unbelievable for the big screen. But you know who you could have put in front of a camera to make something that surreal work, lending it heft and heart?
Rest eternally, your highness.