Hollywood was dealt a heavy blow on August 28, 2020, when it emerged that Chadwick Boseman died from colon cancer. The year will already go down as one of our most shocking, most deathly times in modern history, so it’s rather easy to feel desensitized by the news cycle and the tragic events it reveals.
As the public continues to collectively mourn the passing of Chadwick, it’s worth reflecting on his journey. It may have been cut too short at 43 but it’s undeniable that he’s left behind an immeasurable, impactful legacy, one that will serve an inspiration for thousands of actors following in his footsteps.
On August 28, his representatives announced via his Twitter account that Chadwick was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016. By 2020, this cancer had progressed to stage IV and ended up claiming his life.
This means that Chadwick was continuing to act in films, appear in press functions, and be in the public eye while undergoing treatment for his disease behind the scenes. That in itself speaks to his resilience and character. It’s not only appropriate to celebrate his life and legacy but also take a step back to examine how we can approach our own lives as a result.
Chadwick hid his struggles so Black Panther could go forward
It’s no secret that Black Panther is a cultural phenomenon. For those of you who haven’t quite had the chance to see it, the film is centered around a majority Black cast. It’s known to be the first superhero movie to feature a Black cast, so naturally, the impact it’s had on the Black community is unprecedented and touching.
Chadwick had already portrayed T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War, so he knew that Black Panther had the potential to lead a seismic shift in terms of representation in Hollywood. He was in for his big break, but before he could properly savour the feeling, he received the devastating diagnosis.
In a video that’s now being widely circulated, Chadwick is sharing an anecdote about two young boys with terminal cancer. He said that he’d been communicating with both of them throughout their filming. Chadwick shared how their parents told him that the kids were trying to “hold on” until the movie was released.
To a certain degree, you hear them say that, and you’re like ‘Wow, I gotta get up and go to the gym, I gotta get up and go to work’ […] seeing how the world has taken this on; seeing how the movement and how it’s taken on a life of its own, I realize that they anticipated something great.
Chadwick said that his interactions with the kids took him back to his own childhood, back when he himself used to get so excited for Christmas or his own birthday. That’s when he realized the project he had taken on was so much bigger than a simple film — it was going to be a life-changing experience for so many young people out there. Unfortunately, both the boys died before the film could be released.
The fact that Chadwick was going through a similar struggle as those kids must have been unnerving for the actor. He could have easily backed out of the role last minute and let Marvel deal with the ramifications.
But Chadwick decided to stay on board because he knew that it was more essential than ever to get the movie out as soon as possible. He knew that Black kids all over the world needed to see themselves on the big screen, that they needed to feel like they were being seen and heard, and therefore, he made the difficult choice to put on a happy face and keep his struggles hidden.
Speaking on the pressure of doing Black Panther, Chadwick said:
I think we all placed that pressure on ourselves with this cos we knew what the opportunity was. Everyone knew this was something that had not been done before […] So you have to get it right. It’s a big movie and a big investment has been placed in you. You wanna accomplish something because it might not happen again if you don’t do it right. Everyone felt that.
Chadwick had almost quit the industry before landing his first big gig
Hollywood is a fickle industry and it’s quite normal for actors to take off the ground at differing speeds. Chadwick never intended to be an actor. For much of his twenties, he was a playwright and aspiring director. He actually graduated from Howard University with a degree in directing; his education was partly funded by Denzel Washington.
Chadwick described his early twenties as a time when he was trying to do a little bit of everything. “I said yes too much,” he said. Those decisions led him to projects he didn’t particularly enjoy too much or those that didn’t match his vision. His agent told me that he had to pick a clear path — whether it was acting, writing, or directing — into Hollywood.
One reason he ended up selecting acting was that he wanted to know how to understand their work as a director and playwright. But even acting roles early on didn’t amount to much. He recalled taking odd jobs here and there to pay the bills but they wouldn’t be enough — he would still be struggling to make rent. He said:
When you don’t have money, when you’ve got, like, a jar full of change and each day it’s “Okay, I’ve got enough to get on the train” and “Maybe that check’s gonna come today…” There’s nothing more stressful than your stomach growling. But interestingly enough, some of my best writing came when I was poor and hungry—living off water and oatmeal, mind clear.
Eventually, Chadwick’s writing projects began to catch the attention of industry folks in New York and he was considering giving up the measly acting life to commit to writing full-time. He had auditioned for a movie called 42 and he wasn’t getting any callbacks. Nobody called him to let him know his audition had gone well or that he succeeded in his audition. The fact that he had no response made him consider giving up acting for good. But just when he felt ready to step out, he got the call and booked his first gig.
He landed his first major gig at 35, an age some would say is rather late for an actor. But it just goes to show that there isn’t a straight line to stardom. It’s all about picking up what you can and having patience in the business. Some inevitably do leave the industry and focus on other areas, but for some, it may be worth sticking it out. If Chadwick had left the industry that night, then he wouldn’t have been able to embody T’Challa in Black Panther, therefore changing the lives of hundreds and thousands of Black folks around the world.
Regarding his headspace around the time, Chadwick said:
It was a frustrating year, because I was so close to getting things that would have taken me to another place. But it was never actually happening. For some reason I couldn’t get anything. I only later realized that it was some divine intervention, because if I did some of those things, I wouldn’t have been available. You don’t get stuff, and it opens up other opportunities.
His contribution to film history goes beyond Black Panther
Though Black Panther is obviously the crown jewel of his career, it’s worth noting that Chadwick played a number of significant Black historical figures in his career. From portraying the first African-American player in Major League Basement (MLB), Jackie Robinson, to playing influential musician James Brown to taking on the role of Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights activist and Supreme Court justice, Chadwick leant towards roles that highlighted the diversity and strength of Black men in a world that ignores and demonizes them. Regarding his roles, Chadwick said:
You’re a strong black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great. So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?
The South Carolina native will go down as someone who worked tirelessly to represent these large Black icons with dignity, complexity, and empathy. The fact that he dedicated so much energy, passion, and focus on doing these figures justice speaks volumes on the strength of his mindset. He knew that he was in a unique position of power to bring something unbelievable special to other people. He certainly didn’t have to do that while going through something so traumatic and rough, but he did so anyway.
You have a purpose, whether you know it or not
Chadwick’s short but incredible career is a testament to the drive of the human being. Our ability to withstand pain, both physical and mental, and still barrel through life to fulfill our dreams and passions is unmatched. Chadwick knew, at least subconsciously, that his work would go on to change the world, so he put aside his own struggles to carry out these projects of colossal scale.
It’s a separate debate whether he should have done it at all, especially at the expense of his own health. But what’s clear is that he knew his purpose and he acknowledged that he was making a difference for other people. He said:
When you are deciding on next steps, next jobs, next careers, further education, you should rather find purpose than a job or a career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you.
You have a purpose as well. It might not seem as significant as making a blockbuster film that will go down in the history books but it can just as special and impactful. The world thrives on bridges and connections; therefore, the work you do, whether it is personal or professional, will undeniably impact others beyond your immediate circle.
What you have to realize is life on Earth can be tragically short for some people, so you have to ask yourself how each action is connected to your purpose. Sometimes you may realize it, sometimes you don’t, but the main takeaway from Chadwick’s life is that we should be grateful for the opportunities we get because they help us realize our purpose in life.