Given his stature today, it may be surprising to recall that Boseman didn’t land a significant movie role until he was in his mid-30s. A graduate of Howard University and the British American Drama Academy, he mostly appeared in one-off parts on television until he was cast as the baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the 2013 biopic 42. The only other person who had played Robinson in a movie before was Robinson himself, and yet here was a virtual unknown taking on the part with confidence and grace. So much of the film, directed by Brian Helgeland, deals with Robinson’s struggle to control his anger as he’s subjected to racist abuse by fans and players, and Boseman’s performance simmers with heroic restraint.
This versatility and talent made an entire industry take notice. When Boseman was promoting Get On Up, he got a call from Marvel Studios—they were preparing to introduce the character of Black Panther into their successful cinematic universe, and there was only one person they wanted. “You hear people say this all the time … but he was the only choice,” Marvel producer Kevin Feige later said in an interview. Black Panther, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, was the first African superhero in American comics, a milestone figure created in the 1960s. But Boseman’s performance in four Marvel movies vaulted the character to total global celebrity.
Boseman’s history of playing beloved, revolutionary figures shaped the way audiences and other directors saw him. When Spike Lee was making his latest film, Da 5 Bloods, he centered the plot on a Black soldier who had died in the Vietnam War: Stormin’ Norman, a wise squad leader whose compatriots try to recover his body many years later. Lee was adapting an original script that depicted Norman as still being alive, carrying out raids deep in the jungles, but he decided that the character made more sense as a deceased, romanticized figure—a tragic loss from a bleak era in American history. “Here’s the thing for me. This character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa!” Lee told me in an interview earlier this year. “Chad is a superhero! That character is Christlike … there’s light from heaven coming down from above on him.”
Written by David Sims