Chadwick Boseman died yesterday, at the age of 43, as sudden—at least, to those not privy to his four-year battle with cancer—and shocking a death as Hollywood has been forced to reckon with in some time. Despite the news breaking late on a Friday night, the tributes came swiftly pouring in, as fans, colleagues, and long-time admirers expressed their appreciation for Boseman’s talent, for his energy, and especially for the gentleness with which he conducted himself across his sudden ascent from working actor to global superstar. The remembrance posts are already abundant, to the point of being nigh overwhelming: From MCU head Kevin Feige. From the Russo brothers, whose Captain America: Civil War first introduced his Black Panther to the world. From former co-stars Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Josh Gad, and more. From athletes, deploying the Wakanda salute after scoring goals. From musicians, discussing what Boseman’s performances meant to them. Even from political leaders, including Barack Obama—who met Boseman shortly after he portrayed Jackie Robinson in 2013's 42—and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who Boseman’s final social media post was in support of.
But the most affecting tributes—at least, to our eyes—were not those in which Boseman was spoken about, but those in which he spoke. Fans have filled social media this weekend with moments of sudden grace and warmth from the actor—the majority of which, we now know, were filmed at a time when he was fighting the cancer that ultimately took his life. These moments can range from the somber to the silly, but they were all infused with the care with which Boseman grasped his role and responsibilities, not just as a performer, but as a steward of the sort of hope that comes of being the world’s most prominent Black superhero.
Take this Tonight Show bit, which takes a simple premise (surprise fans with an appearance from their celebrity hero), and then transforms it via the way Boseman seeks immediate connection with his star-struck fans.
Then there’s the various clips that have been taken from his 2018 commencement speech at Howard University, where he studied acting, and where he then returned to receive an honorary doctorate.
Or there’s the clips of Boseman paying some tribute himself, to Denzel Washington, who, famously, helped pay for him to study acting at Oxford (courtesy of a request from his then-acting teacher, Phylicia Rashad.)
Then there’s watching Boseman accept the SAG Award for Best Cast In A Motion Picture in 2019, standing with his Black Panther co-stars and talking about his hopes of changing a world in which the “young, gifted, and Black” were continually shut out of the Hollywood power structure.
Others highlighted Boseman’s natural gift for comedy, never showcased better than in his reprise of T’Challa, king of Wakanda, on an installment of Saturday Night Live’s “Black Jeopardy.”
And then, of course, there’s this clip, from the Black Panther press junket, in which Boseman talked about communicating with two young superfans who were dying of cancer while the movie was being filmed—a clip that now carries numerous extra layers of significance now that we know that Boseman had been living with his diagnosis for two years at this point.
And all that is to say nothing of the many, many clips from his various films that have been passed around today, whether from his transformation into James Brown for 2014's Get On Up, or every moment that captures the grace, confidence, and occasional comedy highlighted in his Black Panther role. The world is still coming to terms with what it means to have an actor so young, so vital, so central to a new wave of representation for Black heroes in mainstream culture, to suddenly be gone. For now, that process can’t help but involve sifting through the past, doing our best to give ourselves a clearer picture of exactly what’s been lost.