Appreciating Chadwick Boseman's true place in pop culture

Bongani Madondo doffs his hat to the late 'Black Panther' star who nearly changed the world

13 September 2020 - 00:02 By Bongani Madondo
'Black Panther' actor Chadwick Boseman passed away on August 28 2020 after battling colon cancer for four years.
'Black Panther' actor Chadwick Boseman passed away on August 28 2020 after battling colon cancer for four years.
Image: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney

Yes, this was our king. Not because we served him or because he ruled, but because of how he served us in everything he did. He played a hero on screen and lived like one in real life. - Trevor Noah

Cancer or no cancer, my children's ultimate hero was king of a meta-fictional land and in their hearts, King T'Challa will live forever. Chadwick Boseman wasn't going to live long - not in this unfeeling world, anyhow.

But, thanks to flesh-and-blood Boseman, T'Challa will. Hold your handkerchief. Boseman wouldn't have wanted you to cry for him Argentina, Africa, America, Brazil, Belarus or wherever you are in the world holding mini-wakes, séances or performing grief
in his name.

Boseman, who had an aversion to celebrity, would have counselled against your public affection, and T'Challa wouldn't have had time to partake in it. He'd be far away somewhere, fixing the world.

Born the third child of a nurse mother and an upholsterer father in South Carolina, Chad was a dyed-in-the-wool scion of the South. In that state there's a community of Gullahs - a community distinct from mainstream Black Americans. They cultivate their own culture and neo-African English dialect and holdfast to their umbilical link to the Africa of their roots.

There, God is "Gawd", water is "wuhtah", and boat is "bo-aht". We don't know how much of that geography of the soul in his DNA influenced Boseman's portrayals of the fictional king. His accent in Black Panther is a hysterical stew of isiXhosa and pan-Nai-guh-rian, both terrible and charming for his trying.

Boseman had an unspoken understanding that the South was, by and large, a piece of Africa in the "New World". His own family traced its paterfamilial roots to present-day Sierra Leone.

Looking at photos of him, all teeth, or wearing a solemnity that inscribed its name across his heart, I felt that in another life he could have been of royal blood, and that the spirit of imagined royalty lent him his Zen-like mien as a person, and his gravitas as an artist.

You could tell, even from a magazine fashion spread, that here was a man who'd accepted his fate, both with a shrug and with that weighty feeling of having no option. That condition has a name: destiny.

The spirit of imagined royalty lent Boseman his Zen-like mien as a person, and his gravitas as an artist

Boseman didn't grow up stick fighting, but he did grow up stick thin - and with teeth that threatened to crowd his mouth. If he'd been South African, he would have been nicknamed Mazinyo.

After his graduation from Howard University in 2000, Boseman settled in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant.

There's no denying that he was weaned on righteous "Negro" values. It pumps through his veins. And yet it didn't define him. He wanted, upon arriving in Gotham, to relive the bygone sepia life of beatniks: black beret and foot tapping to the sound of Bebop (not only Hip-Hop). He skulked around coffee shops, penned stage plays and imagined himself to be the new August Wilson.

Too bad. New York had its own August Wilson (and anti-August Wilson rolled into one): George C Wolfe, the last director with whom Boseman worked.

Boseman, the beatnik, huh?!

Which true artist didn't quest after the pre-beat days of the Algonquin Gang (a group of New York City writers, critics, actors, and wits)?

Better still, raise your hand, grand ol' Philistine, you who never situated yourself in the delirium, wind-soaked and tyre-burn postcard of a Jack Kerouac road trip - the scrolls and scrawls of freewheeling prose leaping from a pawn-shopped typewriter that could have been a piano board in the hands of the young and reckless.

But Boseman had a mission.

Black children then didn't have the cultural luxury of slumming it, trying to write the next Finnegan's Wake, guzzling coffee, Jack Daniels, or both, and perfecting haiku.

I imagine all the world's people with the exception of European descendants are dealt the same set of cards: get a proper job, don't wear your emotions on your sleeve, excel in everything including your failures … just don't let the collective down in the "white world". Boseman would have intrinsically understood that, packed up and headed to Hollywood.

He steadily built a portfolio with a slew of bit parts in TV shows like Law & Order and the family series Lincoln Heights, where he caught the attention of the unorthodox director Quentin Tarantino, casting for Django Unchained.

"I'm glad I picked Jamie Foxx for the lead," Tarantino told film writer Elvis Mitchell, "but if I'd picked up an unknown, it would have been Chadwick Boseman."

Boseman's roles included baseball great Jackie Robinson, Civil Rights activist Thurgood Marshall and rock'n'roll's Soul Brother no 1, James Brown. But I'm loath to bore you.

Instead, we should look to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, in which the Igbo stylist tells us the story of a spirit child recycled in and out of life before settling into its predestined body.

The Igbo name of the spirit child who was born and died several times before "living" is "Ogbanje". A hasty reading of that phenomenon is that the child, or woman who gave birth to it, was cursed.

The alternative reading is that the spirit was searching for the opportune moment, and the right child, to fulfil the ancestral role in the body that's ultimately allowed to live. Boseman's career-defining role as T'Challa in one of the highest-grossing films in motion-picture history strikes me as the embodiment of the cyclical Ogbanje moment and, more satisfyingly for underdogs everywhere, the ultimate affirmation of the Ogbanje.

He is an Ogbanje because his path to the groundbreaking role embodied the trials and tribulations of artists before him, mostly but not always male. Their careers flickered, rose and died in Hollywood long before he was born. He channelled their deferred artistic dreams.

Long before Boseman, there was Oscar Micheaux, Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel. They made it possible for a Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, the photographer-filmmaker Gordon Parks and Melvin van Peebles, directors of Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, respectively.

As we strive not to forget Harry Belafonte in that pantheon, we should also remember his African songbird, Miriam Makeba, whose short time on the American bandstand, and improbable revolutionary exploits in song and in deed, were an epic film in their own right.

Ditto the life of Hugh Masekela, who, as per his memoir, Still Grazing, was the first Black person to establish a music and film entity on Sunset Strip and live in a luxury glass nest in Malibu.

Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Lawrence Fishburne and Denzel Washington would not have flourished, and altered how the world - not only Black people - viewed, or chose not to see, Black genius on screen, had it not been for the clearing of the thorns by their predecessors.

It's not much of a stretch then, to appreciate Boseman's real and symbolic place in the culture.

I say "the" culture, and not "our" culture, for a reason. The way Boseman channelled a cartoon African prince - gifted its heft by Christopher Priest, writer of the 1980s Black comic book - framed not only people of African descent but also brown, red and yellow people around the world too; they saw themselves in the character.

The aperture through which light was shone on these people via the triumphant ease of Boseman's abilities changed how the US and the world reckoned with itself. If only momentarily.

While researching Boseman, I found some showbiz bumf in Entertainment Weekly. Solemn in tone, the piece reported how Boseman had died - after battling colon cancer for four (productive) years. The story, though, was mainly concerned with speculation about Marvel Comics' Black Panther sequel.

"Can he be replaced?" was the subtext.

At the time of Boseman's death, the sequel was "in development", says the article. That's movie-speak for production had not yet begun.

It's the perfect canvas to cast the next T'Challa to stamp, strum and stomp his, or in the event he discovers he's queer, her - "their" - tune on us.

Long live the radiant child.

• Madondo is author of the Afro Sci-Fi allegory 'Red Skin Slayers' and of 'Sigh, the Beloved Country' (Picador Africa).

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