Culture At Large

Chadwick Boseman’s Sacrifice

Claude Atcho

One of the more memorable moments of my adult life is indebted to Chadwick Boseman.

Watching Black Panther with my mother—an immigrant from Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa—is a memory I’ll always treasure. Upon seeing how deeply authentic the film was in its African heritage—from Boseman’s accent to the immaculately traditional attire—my mother uttered with pride and surprise, “So Hollywood really made a movie about Africans like me.”

Boseman, who died Aug. 28 after a private, four-year private battle with Stage 3 colon cancer, was a uniquely purposeful actor, devoted to showcasing the stories and examples of Black heroes—whether in his string of biopics (Get on Up, Marshall, and 42) or in his magnetic performance as T’Challa in Black Panther. In his career choices, Boseman offered moments of dignity and inspiration. In a tribute at Variety, Marshall director Reginald Hudlin shared that Boseman was reluctant to do the film for fear of being overly committed to biopics, but decided to take the title role “for the greater good” of telling Thurgood Marshall’s story.

Seeking after a greater good is a fitting descriptor for what we know of Boseman, both on and off the screen. Indeed, there is even a Christ-likeness—a redemptive suffering—in Boseman’s key performances and in his private battle with colon cancer.

42 is a prime example. Here Boseman plays Jackie Robinson, the first Black man to integrate Major League Baseball, enduring scalding racial animus in the process. Early in the film, the stakes are described in biblical terms by his new general manager, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford): “Like our savior, you’ve got to have the guts to turn the other cheek.” Played with the assured confidence and the sly smile audiences would adore in Black Panther, Boseman’s Jackie Robinson demonstrates the redemptive suffering endured to help tear down one level of racial segregation—for the greater good of a nation’s soul and its aggrieved citizens.

In Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman plays Stormin’ Norman, the leader of five Black Vietnam War soldiers—their “Malcolm and Martin”—who carries a captivating mix of courage and grit. Though limited in his screen time, Boseman’s Stormin’ Norman is integral to the emotional climax of the film (spoilers ahead). In a vision, the deceased Norman appears to the guilt-ridden Paul (Delroy Lindo) to declare that he has been forgiven. The angle of Lee’s camera and the lighting give Norman an unmistakably heavenly aura. Where Boseman reaffirmed the God-given glory of my ethnic heritage with Black Panther, in Da 5 Bloods, he drew me to the wonder of Christ's atoning work and lavish grace.

There is a Christ-likeness—a redemptive suffering—in Boseman’s performances and in his private battle with cancer.

With Boseman, this Christ-likeness extended beyond the silver screen. The sobering knowledge that since 2016 Boseman was fighting colon cancer, even while filming these movies and others, casts a thick, sacrificial light on his work. The world is shell-shocked by Boseman’s death, reeling from the revelation that he quietly and willingly endured so much to offer himself through his art, to provide moments of sheer exuberance and moments of dignity and joy, like those I shared with my mother.

In Black Panther particularly, Boseman extended himself—through intensive training and filming—for the sake of a story that was singularly transformative in its representation, providing an inspiring emblem of African and Black culture to the entire world. Is it even possible to calculate the cultural impact of a film that expands imaginations and affirms the God-given dignity of African culture—not only in America, but across the globe? Here stood an actor—a man of clear purpose—who depicted the power of redemptive suffering for the sake of others. Boseman embodied this Christ-like example both in his roles and in himself, fighting through his cancer to offer us stories that inspired and uplifted and showed the God-given dignity of Black life in a world that often asserts the opposite.

Of course, it’s wise to be careful about identifying Christ figures in art and in the lives of our most revered artists. No human is perfect. At the same time, there’s biblical warrant in noticing these redemptive resonances. The Apostle Peter urges Christians to follow in the example of Christ, who suffered righteously and with endurance, while the Apostle Paul encourages us to adopt the mind of Christ, who looked not only to his own interest but also to the interest of others, ultimately doing so to the point of the most shameful form of death: death on a cross. In Boseman’s life and work, we find narrative glimmers of Christ’s example, small glimpses that stir a deep sense of appreciation for an actor gone too soon. I know the next time my mother and I watch Black Panther together, it will be through a flood of tears.

Topics: Culture At Large