This morning, I woke up with a line from Hamilton echoing through my head: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” It was a fitting first thought on a morning in which my immediate second thought was the awareness of Chadwick Boseman’s passing rushing back in to fill the momentary empty space created while I slept.
Every death matters. But some rare people’s presence in life is so large, so powerful, that their death leaves a monumental void in the world that can never be repaired or replaced with another. No one even tries. Their number is retired and never worn again, knowing it can never be done justice. There was never one like them before; there will never be another one like them after. Theirs is a presence so vital, you just assumed they would be with the world for years to come, for a long lifetime, for forever.
Chadwick Boseman was one of those rare people. We were supposed to grow old watching his work, his prodigious, effortless talent. We were supposed to be blessed with his brilliance for all our lives. That’s what it felt like, anyway. That’s how impactful he was in the short time he had: We just assumed he’d be one of the lifetime career greats.
It’s astonishing to look at Boseman’s IMDb page and realize that he only got his first recurring role in a TV show in 2008 – just 12 years ago. Astonishing to realize he only landed his first feature film role that same year. Astonishing to realize he didn’t have a lead role in a movie until 2012, didn’t land his breakthrough role until a year later in 2013. It’s hard to fathom his star had only been on its meteoric ascent a scant seven years because in those seven years, he packed what felt to us like an entire career’s worth of meaningful roles. Boseman worked like a man who knew he was running out of time.
In the end, it turns out, he was.
Without us realizing it, he was quietly leaving a legacy that was bigger than acting. His penchant for playing Black historical figures and icons was so notable it became a recurring joke on the internet – “Oh, there’s another movie about a historical Black man? They’re gonna cast Chadwick.” – but it was all done with intention. In the hours since his passing, thousands of people have expressed the sentiment that he chose the roles he did, pushed himself to do such intense, tiring work because he knew he might not have much time left. And that’s true – it’s impossible not to think of one’s legacy as one is staring down the barrel of certain and swift mortality. It’s understandable that so many people have echoed this refrain; there’s a certain dark romance in it.
But to frame Boseman’s career choices only in the context of his illness is to do him a disservice. He’d been valiantly fighting against and thriving despite colon cancer for four years, but his entire career was much longer and it has been one of deliberate choices and meaningful intent from the very beginning. His roles have always been carefully considered for their impact upon the Black community and for their impact on how the rest of America views the Black community. It’s how he’s built his life, his character, the kind of man he wanted to be.
In his 2018 commencement address to the senior class at his alma mater, Howard University, Boseman told a story about being let go from his very first acting job, a network soap opera, because he’d asked too many questions about his negatively stereotyped character. He spoke about purpose. The purpose of one’s intention, of staying true to oneself. Boseman figured out how to align his career with his purpose early on.
It’s a sign of Boseman’s strength of character and sense of purpose that he never once strayed from that path. It’s easy to say as a very young actor that you’ll only pick certain lofty roles and meaningful jobs, harder to stick to those ideals when you’re broke and struggling and following your principles means turning down your first real paycheck or a potential breakthrough role. But Boseman did, and he did it knowing full well the legacy he was building with every role he took.
Those roles included Jackie Robinson, America’s first African-American to play in the MLB. Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to ever serve on the Supreme Court. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and one of the most influential musicians in history. T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the Black Panther. His first-ever part in a feature was playing NFL Hall of Famer Floyd Little in The Express, a biopic about the life of Ernie Davis, the first Black college football player to ever win the Heisman Trophy.
When he wasn’t playing a real figure from history, he took care to choose projects that still spoke to the Black experience and unique struggle. His first recurring TV role was playing Nathaniel “Nate” Ray Taylor in Lincoln Heights, a TV series with a predominantly Black cast about a Black family trying to help their community. Even more significant than his first major role was his last: Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a story of Black Vietnam vets haunted by the ghosts of war, the loss of their beloved squad leader, Stormin’ Norman, and grappling with the pain of fighting for a country that doesn’t want to fight for them. Of course, Boseman played Norman. Of course. An inspirational figure who led his men by words and example, leaving with them a legacy of activism without hate, of channeling their anger into speaking truth to power but leaving room for forgiveness. Sometimes, the fundamental essence of a fictional character overlaps with the actor playing them; Stormin’ Norman and Chadwick Boseman were one.
And the purposeful work would have continued had he gotten the final word instead of cancer. At the time of his passing, he was set to star Yasuke, a film about the 16th-century samurai who was the only known samurai of African origin. We’ll hear him reprise his role of T’Challa one last time in Marvel’s animated What If…? series. And we’ll get one last posthumous movie from Boseman: His last gift to us, playing the ambitious trumpet player Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on Pulitzer-winning Black playwright August Wilson’s play about Ma Rainey, the aptly-nicknamed “Mother of the Blues.”
Boseman died on a date packed with meaning. Jack Kirby, the co-creator of Black Panther, was born on August 28th, 1917. Emmett Till, the Black teenager who was lynched by two white men and became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, was murdered on August 28th, 1955. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his untouchable “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28th, 1963. Normally celebrated on April 15th every year, this year and this year alone, the MLB celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on August 28th. And on August 28th, 2020, Chadwick Boseman – Black man, activist, actor, inspiring source of joy – passed away and left one of those monumental voids we can never fill.
But what a legacy. My God, what a legacy. A legacy created not by accident or luck or happenstance but built with the deliberate, resolute purpose of a calling.
I’ll end this with a compilation video I found juxtaposing that memorable 2018 commencement speech with Chadwick Boseman’s work.
We didn’t have him for long enough – not nearly long enough. But how lucky we were to live, even for a brief time, in a world shaped by his powerful purpose.