Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Chadwick Boseman and the Death of Hope
When Indian actor Irrfan Khan died earlier this year, I felt an uncharacteristic sadness. Khan was the kind of actor who even when he played a villian, there was an underlying kindness to him; a nobility; a preternatural and paternal calm that could make you feel that no matter what happened, things would be OK as long as he was in the world.
But that sadness was nothing compared to the gut-punch that has been the news of the death of Chadwick Boseman.
I am not one to grieve over celebrities. My cynical grounding in the real world taught me long ago that famous people are not our friends and that we really don't know them. The hand you shake, the autograph you get, the TV show you watch, these are not genuine connections. But sometimes an actor comes along, and a role comes along, and a concept comes along, and it all comes together at the exact right time in the zeitgeist, and something magical and transcendent and yes, important, happens.
Such was the case with Chadwick Boseman.
I first saw Chadwick Boseman in 2013 in "42." As a longtime baseball fan, I love a good baseball movie. Watching this one, I was blown away by this guy I'd never heard of who so inhabited Jackie Robinson that it was as if he were channelling the real one. The stoicism. The pent-up rage. The quiet strength.
It was the kind of performance that makes you sit up, take notice, and write down the name. I thought about that movie for days.
I have to admit that I didn't rush out to see "Black Panther." I knew it starred the guy who had impressed me so much five years earlier. But I'd grown tired of comic book movies years earlier after sitting through "Iron Man" with Mr. Brilliant. At that time, I figured that if Robert Downey, Jr. wasn't enough to offset the stunts and CGI and noise of which I'd grown weary, nothing was. So I didn't see it until enough people assured me that it wasn't going to be just another Marvel movie with a superhero and a Big Bad and a lot of Things Blowing Up Real Good.
There have been so many keystrokes spent on how this movie, with its fully fleshed-out, decidedly African universe that is more technologically advanced than anything that white people have ever come up with, and its nearly all-black cast, landed like an earthquake, that there's nothing more I can add. But if the kings of myth are, if not superheroes, certainly a touch above us mere mortals, then the minute Chadwick Boseman appears on screen, there's a sense that you are not just in the presence of an actor portraying a king, you are in the presence of a real one. And at the end, when King T'Challa addresses the United Nations, sounding for all the world not much different from Nelson Mandela in tone and cadence, that view is cemented in your mind.
It was late Friday night, August 28 when I made the mistake of one last Twitter check before going to bed. I was seeing a bunch of tweets from black journalists and activists I follow about how this is too much, about how 2020 just got that much worse, and I wondered what it was about. And then I saw.
After Mr. Brilliant died seven years ago, I felt for days as if my chest had been crushed. I would fear going to sleep because I feared I wouldn't wake up. Whoever coined the term "heartbroken" knew what s/he was talking about. This news felt like that, and I simply could not stop crying. This lasted all weekend, and I had no idea why. I'm not one to cry over celebrity deaths, no matter how cruel and premature they are or however much I may have enjoyed their work.
This was different somehow. This IS different somehow.
It's different because of the knowledge that this man, with his quiet strength, made this and six other films all the while knowing that time was going to run out for him sooner rather than later. He did this grueling movie while undergoing cancer treatments, which knock most people out flat. He visited kids with cancer knowing of his own diagnosis. He spoke at Howard University's graduation just months ago.
Somehow in the last two years, he BECAME T'Challa. And every time you'd see a photo of a kid crossing his arms across his (or her) chest, you knew that the strength, the dignity, the quiet, and the determination of this man had reached well out into the universe. Wakanda, with its sweeping vistas and beautiful waterfalls and ability to heal pretty much everything, seemed possible, and we weirdly thought he would be instrumental somehow in getting us there, even if only in a blockbuster sequel. Hey, no one said it was rational, but we WANTED Wakanda and its king to be real. And in that wanting there was hope that it COULD be real.
It's become harder every day in this annus horribilis to sustain that hope. I've been able during this pandemic to largely hold it together. I've been living day by day, forgiving myself for those days (like this one) when I'm online all day and get little accomplished. My blood pressure is normal despite all the news and social media I feed into my head every day. I have a limited, but still-active-for-social-isolation social life. I've described myself as "pretty zen about the whole thing." But we are now two months away from an election the results of which I do not think will be pretty. I'm quite honestly frightened. The barbarians are at the gate. Killmonger is in charge and will take power by any means necessary. And King T'Challa is not here to persevere and to light the way.
Of course that's absurd. And it's a terrible burden to place on ANY actor, never mind one battling cancer. But I think for a lot of people, that's what it felt like. All I know is that since I read the news on Friday night, I can't shake the feeling that all hope I may have had that we might get out of this mess has died too.