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Chadwick Boseman: A Tribute to the Late Actor’s Life and a Reflection on Hidden Disabilities

This Joseph Maley Foundation blog was written and researched by Communications Associate, Lauren Maley. 

If you are not familiar with the name Chadwick Boseman, ask any child. In seconds you’ll know: he’s the Black Panther.

Seriously, it’s been done before. At the 2021 Golden Globes, TikTok star La’Ron Hines did a short video where he asked kids what they know about award shows. They knew absolutely nothing, but when asked who Chadwick Boseman was, they all knew: “he’s the good guy.” As the video aired at the event, people watching at the venue, and across the world, were overwhelmed with emotion. They saw what we know: that the legacy of  The Black Panther, the first high-profile Black Marvel superhero, will carry on within the hearts of our future generation of leaders.

The importance and significance of Chadwick Boseman’s achievements, and the legacy he left behind after his untimely, shocking, and devastating death at the age of only 41, cannot be overstated. He has not only cemented himself in history as a cultural icon, he’s shown, time and again, the urgent need for representation in media. And he did it all while fighting a hidden disability.

It was a Friday evening in August of 2020, which meant it was the end of a week that was both exhaustingly long, yet strangely quick: a pandemic week. A time that was characterized by quarantine boredom, cycles of bad news, election speak, continuing social unrest, and (for me at least) the oppressive heat of a Southern California summer.

I was sitting on my laptop, working on a dystopian cyberpunk screenplay I had been writing for a while. I was on the verge of finally figuring out the – very nerdy and complicated – details about how AI altered opposite DNA sequences would create cyborg/bionic soulmates, when my husband knocked on the door. Annoyed, as I was finally in a zone, I looked up as my very tall, stoic, (and also very nerdy) partner hovering in the doorway. He didn’t speak at first, but I knew something was wrong. He had tears welling in his eyes, something I had never seen before. My irritation was instantly replaced with dread, but nothing could have prepared me for what he was about to tell me.

“Lauren…Chadwick Boseman died.”

As those words hit my ears and sunk in, my stomach followed suit, sinking down, down, down. A long, pained “Noooo!” came next, and I began to sob.

To me, Chadwick Boseman was more than a star. He was an inspiration. I only started dreaming of a life of storytelling in 2017 after seeing my first Marvel film, Black Panther, and it made me realize that anything could be possible. Chadwick Boseman’s performance led me to write this screenplay, my only sci-fi story of any real worth. I dreamed of Boseman himself as the lead role.

In hearing the news of his passing, it felt like months worth of pain and despair had been released. Following weeks and weeks of unrest due to the murder of George Floyd, my own efforts to acknowledge and check my white privilege, educating myself on systemic and systematic racism, and vowing to be an ally to black-led movements fighting for equality and equity, Chadwick Boseman’s death felt like an undue and unbelievable loss. How, right now, could he be taken when it felt like we needed him most?

Chadwick Boseman’s death was just months after another untimely death of a Black legend, basketball star Kobe Bryant, and I immediately assumed Boseman’s death had to have been a terrible freak accident. I was wrong.

Boseman passed away on August 28, 2020 of Stage III Colon Cancer. He was fighting the disease, in complete secrecy from everybody other than his immediate family and close friends, for years. No one had a clue. There were signs we all could have seen, and these heart-breaking moments flooded twitter after his passing, but so did the astonishing facts about what he was able to accomplish while fighting for his life. Knowing it would end, Boseman still became an icon, portraying and promoting his character, a superhero, when all along it was Chadwick himself who was the real superhero.

Chadwick Boseman was a star. With his breakthrough role as a young Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film 42, later going on to play James Brown in the 2014 success Get on Up, and then becoming the first Black leading role in a Marvel Cinematic Universe film in Black Panther, he was making a visceral impact on the Black community, and the world as a whole.

Especially in his role as King T’Challa (i.e. Black Panther) – Boseman made waves. The movie featured a nearly all Black cast, had a Black director, a Kendrick Lamar soundtrack, and took place in a fictional super-advanced kingdom in Africa that was untouched by imperialism, colonization, and slave traders. A superhero unlike anything anyone had ever seen before – Chadwick Boseman symbolized a changing world, where representation mattered. His poise and power in a film that changed lives everywhere, including my own, was simply iconic and revolutionary. Wakanda Forever, indeed.

Born in 1979, Boseman accomplished an extraordinary amount in his lifetime as a playwright, director, and actor. He worked with some of the most diverse and iconic people in the industry including: Denzel Washington, Mick Jagger, Tessa Thompson, Dan Akroyd, Michael B. Jordan, and Josh Gad. He was always highly praised by critics, directors, costars, and fans. He could do absolutely anything. He put everything into his work, and even gave method acting a try at one point.

In 2016, he became the Black Panther for a 5 movie deal with MCU, and was also diagnosed with colon cancer. He played T’challa while in treatment for his cancer.

Many may not realize that cancer is considered to be a disability. We tend to categorize the disease as its own separate thing, but the US government itself classifies cancer as a disability, allowing individuals affected by the disease to apply for disability social security benefits.

Chadwick’s ability to perform physically intense roles, dramatic masterpieces, go on worldwide non-stop press tours, and attend events and award shows all while in and out of chemotherapy, and keeping his disability a secret, is nothing short of miraculous. It is selfless beyond measure. It is strength unlike anything I’ve ever seen. His life was his, and he gave it his all as best he possibly could, and made sure he left the world a better place when he was gone. He paved the way for so many people of color who would not have the same opportunities today if he hadn’t fought until his death for his legacy.

Outside of his acting success, Chadwick was also a loving, kind, and good soul, according to friends, family, and coworkers. He would text friends the most inspiring and thoughtful things about enjoying the rain and seizing life. When starring and producing 21 Bridges, he sought out Sienna Miller to be his co-star, but she had to turn it down because she was raising her child as a single mother, and the pay just wasn’t enough to justify taking the project on. Chadwick donated what she needed to be compensated fairly from his own salary for the film. Sienna did not share this story until months after his death.

Boseman was also heavily involved in many charitable efforts. Just days before his death, he had reached out to a producer about donating to patients with colon cancer. He did a great deal of work with St. Jude’s, donated $10,000 to the Boys and Girls Club, and helped get Black school children into theaters to see Black Panther. He also donated to help underserved minority communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. The list of his charitable deeds and donations goes on and on.

Boseman’s death rocked Hollywood, children, and even 31-year-old white girls like me. So many people were touched and moved by him. His legacy was cemented immediately by prominent members of the Black community, Disney, the media, and even the US government. Snippits from wikipedia highlight some of the most moving eulogies:

Culture writer Steve Rose, in The Guardian, said that Boseman’s career was revolutionary and he “leaves behind a gamechanging legacy”, attributing this to the actor’s careful planning and selection of roles. Eulogizing him, Rose wrote:[143]

Chadwick Boseman began his career playing African American icons and pioneers; he ends it as one himself. His […] achievements, as an actor and as a cultural force, will surely prove to be as heroic as those of the characters he portrayed. At the very least, he leaves the film-making landscape looking very different to how it was when he entered it.

As the Black Panther, Boseman led a predominantly black cast in a major blockbuster for the first time;[18] Variety said that “the significance of Chadwick Boseman […] to the African American and Black community is immeasurable.”[144] Further expressing the weight of Boseman’s legacy, Robert Daniels wrote for Vulture that “his performance [as T’Challa] wouldn’t just be a demonstration of craft […] It’d become a piece of history. He’d face a slew of pressures, because a Black epic, even a period piece, is forever expected to be important, representative of the past, present, and future.”[145] He told BBC Culture that “through his acting, [Boseman] wrote, rewrote, and reclaimed black history”.

Chadwick Boseman’s life and death reminds us that we never know what is going on in someone’s life, and that disabilities can be invisible.

For many, Boseman’s death changed the way we look out for one another, and appreciate people while they are living. He showed strength, courage, and perseverance in the toughest of conditions and showed the us that if we fight for it, we can change the world.

Mostly, he is proof that superheroes are real.

If a disabled, unsuccessful, grown-up white woman was forever changed by Chadwick Boseman and The Black Panther…just imagine what he means to children of color everywhere, people with disabilities and chronic diseases or invisible illnesses, and what that means for the promise of our future.

Rest in Power, CB.