They call it “suspension of disbelief.” When an audience shuts down the inner voice which reminds them that what they’re watching is just a show, you know an actor is earning their pay. But, another important part of acting is creating a connection between the audience and the character. In other words, making the audience “care” and empathize with the person. Projecting authentic feelings with which the audience can identify is an essential part of the actor’s job. However, sometimes to make one laugh is easier than to make one cry or solidarize with pain. Chadwick Boseman made this challenge look easy throughout his acting career. I think it’s because empathy was common practice for him.
I was first introduced to his work by the movie “42,” (2013) the biopic of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. I remember one scene in particular. During a game, the rival coach starts insulting Robinson with racial slurs while he is at bat. Eventually, Jackie’s justified rage grows so much that he runs toward the dressing rooms with tears in his eyes and, in the midst of his frustration, smashes his bat against the wall. Shortly after, the team’s owner, Branch Rickie, comes to console him and motivates him to prove racists wrong by winning the game.
I assure you, when I saw this scene for the first time, I could feel Robinson’s anger. Memories of experienced racism came to my mind along with that sense of impotence that hits when nothing seems to change racist individuals and institutions. People tend to think that whenever African American “firsts” like Jackie came in and desegregated spaces, change happened quickly and everyone loved them for it. We confuse the “battle” of the past with the honor of the present. In reality, Robinson started the desegregation of the MLB in 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education prohibited segregated schools (1954) and 17 years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act ensured federal protection for minority groups against discrimination based on race. Robinson was almost alone against the world in 1947. Boseman, in “42,” was able to project that and connect the audience to the struggle the character was going through.
For many of us who still struggle against racism, Robinson’s life “confirms our reality” and our experience, as James Baldwin used to say. This confirmation is important for our health when denial and indifference reigns in the hearts and minds of so many people. By portraying flawed, but important, African American figures that overcame many challenges and opened doors for many People of Color, Boseman breathed life into the Black community! That’s why it was so hard for me to hear of his death last Friday. Jacob Blake was shot in the back by a police officer on Sunday August 23. Days later, same week, Kyle Rittenhouse, a White seventeen year-old from Illinois drove to Wisconsin and killed two people who were protesting Blake’s shooting. It was such an exhausting week, and to finish it with Boseman’s death was just another shock.
Chadwick had been fighting cancer in silence for four years now. He received his diagnosis in the same year the world was introduced to his most famous character, the superhero Black Panther. Since then he tirelessly worked in a diversity of roles. Black Panther got his own film in 2018, which won the Marvel Cinematic Universe its first Academy Awards. He made two more appearances as the Black Panther in “Avengers Infinity War” and “Avengers Endgame.” He starred as Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall” 2017), the first African American Supreme Court Justice and fellow alumnus of Howard University. And he played a central role in Spike Lee’s 2020 project, “Da Five Bloods.”. In the meantime, he visited children patients of cancer.
Only a strong soul could have undergone so many physical and mental demands while also working hard and separating time to give hope to others. No wonder he was able to project dignity and strength into his characters: he himself had them. As Wesley Morris said in a piece honoring the actor, “No one approximates this greatness without a considerable reserve of greatness himself.”
Just five years after playing his role as the Georgia native baseball player, Boseman explained in his commencement speech at Howard University that it was his experiences of racism and his education at his alma mater, that allowed him to play Robinson’s role, as well as his most famous role, king T’Challa, in Marvel’s “Black Panther,” so well. He said to graduating students who participated in protests to improve the university: “Everything that you fight for was not for yourself, it was for those who come after,” and told them how “promising” these protests and their education were for their future, as many of them would join institutions accustomed to marginalization, and would have to fight their way through change.
With this exhortation, Chadwick demonstrated that he was aware that his acting was not just a job, but it was his God-given purpose, his way of serving his brothers and sisters. His gift was tied to who he was and how he was going to inspire others into loving more. No wonder Bishop Fernand Cheri from New Orleans, in his message about the witness that the Catholic Church must give when responding to racism, said of the Black Panther movie: “it centers around the question ‘Who are you?’ The answer was not only for the main character to answer but for each person in the film. The discovery of who you are was not only in what you said about yourself, but also what you showed to others.” That is what Chadwick Boseman’s characters did for me. They made me question if the way I live my life matches my beliefs, if there is a divorce between my faith in Jesus and my praxis of empathy, which is the ultimate guarantee of faith.
Chadwick Boseman did not just imagine how to project empathy in his characters. He had a reserve of it in his own life. May his legacy, bringing to life the experiences of historical figures, inspire us to give more. Of all days he could have passed away, August 28, 2020, the 57th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement’s March on Washington, was particularly and painfully prescient. As King T’Challa said in the End credits scene of Black Panther, may we “no longer watch from the shadows,” for in “times of crisis the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”