Chadwick Boseman’s abrupt death two weeks ago was revealed to be the end result of a 4-year-long battle with colon cancer. In the midst of the global pandemic and social unrest, coping with mass death and suffering has become increasingly difficult. Boseman’s passing was a shock to everyone who admired him and his work, and it left many unsure with how to cope.
Boseman is most notable for playing T’Challa in Black Panther and portraying Black icons like Major League Baseball player Jackie Robinson in “42” and singer-songwriter James Brown in the biographical drama “Get On Up.” His portrayal of Robinson in the 2013 biographical film about the baseball player’s life was an early highlight in Boseman’s career. Only a year later would he be cast as the legendary James Brown.
According to a statement posted on Boseman’s Twitter by his family, the renown actor had been managing starring in films while also receiving treatment for his cancer.
“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,” wrote the family.
The Twitter post received a whopping 7.7 million likes as of this week, making it the most liked tweet in Twitter history. The comments were flooded with expressions of grief and disbelief at his passing, he had kept his diagnosis a secret after all. Boseman battled cancer on his own terms, and didn’t abide by the expectation that celebrity means sharing every aspect of your life with the world. No one in his inner circle leaked his diagnosis or went against his wishes to receive treatment in private. Those around him evidently respected his decision to battle cancer without the invasiveness that comes with celebrity. For years, they knew what we didn’t, and when he passed, they were allowed to hear it from those close to him.
Boseman died in his Los Angeles home with his family by his side. He didn’t leave behind children of his own, but parents around the world were left with the task of telling their own children that “Black Panther died.” They shared photos of their children in Black Panther costumes with sentimental, tear-jerking captions. Others were quick to note that the character of Black Panther didn’t pass away, rather the phenomenal man who portrayed the character, all while battling colon cancer. Whether parents told or plan to tell their children about Boseman’s passing is up to them, but what can’t be undone is the inspiration Boseman instilled in millions of people. He was a superhero of his own.
His decision to keep his diagnosis secret, though entirely understandable, did prompt discussion regarding ableism and comments Boseman had received about his fluctuating weight over the years. Though those who left comments on his social media profiles about his weight loss couldn’t have known about his battle with cancer, this proves that we shouldn’t be commenting on anyone’s body to begin with. Between eating disorders, chronic conditions, and general illness, commenting on anyone’s weight is always detrimental and supersedes our intentions, whether good or bad.
Along with the decision to withhold his diagnosis from the public come speculations about why someone may choose to keep that information private. Ableism is so deeply embedded in our communities, and undoubtedly in the film industry. If Boseman had shared his diagnosis, filmmakers may have questioned his ability to fulfill the roles for which he was auditioning for because of their preconceived notions of whose bodies fit into their molds. Navigating the film industry as a disabled person can be isolating, and even when films portray disabled characters, they are often played by able-bodied people. In 2016, research by the Ruderman Family Foundation revealed that only 5 percent of television characters with a disability were portrayed by a disabled actor. Even when films include disabled characters, the film and television industry often give these roles to able-bodied people, therefore being discriminatory while receiving acclaim for pioneering ‘inclusive film and television.’
Boseman passed away on Jackie Robinson Day, a holiday celebrated by the MLB and adoring fans all around the world. The MLB Twitter account released a statement regarding Boseman’s passing.
“We are devastated by the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman. His transcendent performance in “42” will stand the test of time and serve as a powerful vehicle to tell Jackie’s story to audiences for generations to come,” wrote the MLB in a tweet.
Boseman’s influence is immeasurable. He continues to live in children, teenagers, and anyone who watched in awe as he performed his movie screen magic. How do we cope with such a massive loss at a time when we’re losing so many others? The beauty of film and television is that even when an actor passes away, their characters get to live on forever, frozen in time. Whenever we choose, whenever we feel like it, we can turn on one of Boseman’s films and watch knowing that he lived doing what he loved, and maybe for him, we should too.
Boseman’s life hasn’t evaporated into thin air, it’s in DVD’s, it’s a click away, it’s in the eyes of children who wear their Black Panther costumes to class, and sports fan who adore “42.” He’s everywhere we are, so long as we remember to look for him.