Editor’s note: This story contains a racial slur.
In his movie roles, Chadwick Boseman was praised for bringing dignity and humanity to icons in the fight for racial justice — figures like Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. He also inspired millions as the superhero Black Panther.
Off-screen, Boseman was beloved as a role model in his own right — a star who overcame early obstacles to become a voice of encouragement, especially to young Black people. He spoke often about the contributions of his predecessors, including those he portrayed on screen, and was open about his own challenges finding success as a Black man in America.
Boseman died Friday after battling colon cancer for four years. He was 43.
On challenging stereotypes
Boseman graduated from Howard University in 2000 and returned in 2018 to give the commencement address at the historically Black university. He spoke of getting fired from an early acting role because he questioned the show’s producers about it playing on stereotypes.
“Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it,” he told the class of 2018.
“Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose,” he said. “When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.”
On being “young, gifted and Black” in Hollywood
In addition to being a box office hit, Black Panther was praised for its positive portrayal of Africans, featuring a Black superhero as its star, with a mostly Black cast and a Black director.
The film won the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Awards. Boseman gave the acceptance speech.
“To be young, gifted and Black, we all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured,” he said. “Yet, you are young, gifted and Black. We know what it’s like to be told to say there is not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on.
“We know what it’s like to be a tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above. And that is what we went to work with every day because we knew, not that we would be around during awards season and that it would make a billion dollars, but we knew that we had something special that we wanted to give the world. That we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing. That we could create a world that exemplified a world that we wanted to see.”
On Jackie Robinson
In one of his early roles to garner broad acclaim, Boseman played Jackie Robinson, who endured racist attacks, physical and verbal, for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947.
Boseman told NPR in 2013 that he took the role seriously, because he wanted “to do right by the family” and not disappoint Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson.
As part of the movie, Boseman had to hear the racist language that Robinson endured.
“You do get angry,” hearing it, he told NPR in 2013. “And you do feel, in a slice of that reality, somewhat like he would feel. And it’s an incredible amount of courage to deal with that.”
On Thurgood Marshall
Boseman portrayed the man who became the country’s first Black Supreme Court Justice in the 2017 film Marshall. It takes place in 1941, when Marshall was a young lawyer with the NAACP. He was defending a Black man who was accused of raping a white woman in Connecticut.
Boseman told NPR in 2017 that he understood Marshall at this period of his life was “a man about town. He’s a man who enjoys life. … And he is putting that on the line to go fight in places where he’s not wanted.”
NPR’s Michel Martin asked Boseman about portraying Marshall, who grew up in an era of legalized racial discrimination.
“I’m from Anderson, S.C., but I grew up in the South,” Boseman responded. “So I know what it is to ride to school and have Confederate flags flying from trucks in front of me and behind me, to see a parking lot full of people with Confederate flags and know what that means. I’ve been stopped by police for no reason. I’ve been called ‘boy’ and ‘nigger’ and everything else that you could imagine. Along with the great hospitality that is in the South, that is part of it.”
On Denzel Washington
Boseman on multiple occasions told the story of how when he was a student at Howard, he got the opportunity to do a summer program to study theater at Oxford in England. Boseman and some other classmates couldn’t afford to pay for the program. But his teacher at Howard, Phylicia Rashad, was able to gather some funds from some of her friends. He later found out his “benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet,” Denzel Washington.
“There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington,” he told an audience gathered to present Washington with an AFI Life Achievement Award in 2019. “And not just because of me, but my whole cast, that generation stands on your shoulders.”
On Friday, Washington remembered Boseman as “a gentle soul and a brilliant artist, who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances over his short yet illustrious career. God bless Chadwick Boseman.”