In Memoriam: How Chadwick Boseman and King T’Challa Strengthened the Black Lives Matter Movement
I saw Chadwick Boseman play Black Panther in the 2018 Marvel movie in theaters twice and both times it was money very well spent. The first time, I went with a large group of friends on opening day and we dressed up in assorted African prints. I wore a two piece dress and headwrap I had made specifically for the occasion. The women amongst us wrapped our heads in scarves and did our makeup to look like Letitia Wright’s in her role as Princess Shuri with white dots surrounding our eyes before we entered the theater. We weren’t alone. Other Black people in the theater and around the world were doing the same. The movie’s premiere was met with a tangible and deserving sense of celebration.
We gave each other the Wakanda symbol repeatedly with our hands crossed across our chests and shared the emoji that sort of resembles it countless times in our group chat. We did this for months, even after the great Black Panther himself had grown weary of the gesture during the publicity run of the film. It meant so much to us.
After the screening, we went for dinner nearby where we talked incessantly about the movie. As we thoughtfully dissected as much of the film as we could digest on first viewing, we were loud and boisterous and ecstatic, almost daring anyone who couldn’t understand what we were feeling to say anything to us. We had a new king who wasn’t an anthropomorphic lion, who dressed like we did, and carried himself with such grace and dignity, and even if we knew it was all an act, it moved us. For my friends who attended Howard, like Chadwick Boseman did, it was a particularly joyous moment. We couldn’t wait to take our children to see it. We talked for a long time about the women in the film and about what it meant about Black beauty when Danai Gurira as Okoye threw her wig in the face of that White man in the fight scene in Busan. We knew it was a definitively and quintessentially American film, but talked about how it made us feel more connected to our amorphous understanding of the continent of Africa from the perspective of the descendants of enslaved people for whom the connection to more concrete national heritage had been severed by slavery. We talked about what it meant to us to see a full range of Black personalities respectfully represented and how in so doing the film had allowed us to love and understand the movie’s main villain and his animosity towards anti-blackness in America.
Mostly we talked about what it meant for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement. In 2018, the idea that Black lives matter was still marginal in many ways. Killmonger represented a militant version of that belief grounded in a global Black liberation and King T’Challa represented another, more mainstream, less radical version. The core complexity of the film is the fact that in the end, even Killmonger was redeemed and vindicated for holding those underlying beliefs about the value Black life and Black freedom, even if his methods were rightfully rejected, and was embraced by his cousin. Killmonger’s beliefs move his cousin’s thinking further center. King T’Challa becomes a better, more “woke,” leader in part because of the impulse towards Black liberation created by this antipodal relationship. That point reflected our hope that all of Black America who felt like we did about Black lives matter, police brutality, and Trayvon Martin, and the merit of our own lives could also be redeemed and vindicated in the American consciousness. Chadwick Boseman portrayed that ideological shift with nuance and elegance and since then, much of America has followed suit.
The second time I watched the film was a few days later when I took my then six year old son. He could hardly sit still in his seat. He was transfixed the entire runtime. During the film, he asked me if he could be Black Panther for Halloween and I smiled and nodded. In the parking lot, he brought me to tears when, for the first time in his life, he asked if we could go to Africa and maybe Wakanda one day. I didn’t want to tell him that Wakanda wasn’t a real place, but I promised we’d visit the continent together soon. I went home and wrote a facebook post thanking Disney, the creators of the film, Ryan Coogler, the cast, and the original creators of Black Panther, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, for that moment for my son and for all the other children who would feel similarly inspired and proud when watching the movie.
As a piece of art, the movie Black Panther genuinely helped to push Black consciousness and the Black Lives Matter movement forward. Like the crucible at the center of the film, the movement itself is premised on the idea that Black life is inherently meritorious which requires a healthy dose of Black pride. The movie excelled on this point. It instilled an unquestionable sense of pride that helped to momentarily reinvigorate a weary bunch of people who needed a brief diversion into a better world where people that looked like us could lead empires and channel superhuman power and be seen as definitively good and admirable.
On screen, Chadwick Boseman was the captain of that ship. Off screen, he was a philanthropist, an activist, a husband, a dedicated practitioner of his craft, and, as we learned of the circumstances of his colon cancer diagnosis that predated the filming of this other iconic and memorable films, a fighter — a true superhero. He seemed to have such a bright future ahead of him. I’m so glad he found the success he rightfully deserved with Black Panther before his time was cut short. I wish him well on his journey to be with the ancestors.