Boseman’s version of T’Challa is so powerful that it will endure undiminished, even despite his death
A colleague responded to the news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer aged just 43 by posting to Instagram of her son – who’s maybe eight or nine and white British – in costume as the Black Panther giving a crossed-armed Wakandan salute. This is one of many reminders, that the role of T’Challa had not merely made Boseman famous: it had turned him into an icon.
His face, his character and his costume are recognisable the world over. Of the five highest ever grossing films at the US box-office, 3 featured Boseman playing T’Challa. There was a time when Black Panther was the only film ever to have a cinematic release in Saudi Arabia. One of its central action set piece was filmed in Korea whilst I was still living there. In the run up to the film’s release it seemed like the country was plastered with the image of Boseman in the Black Panther armour astride Busan’s Diamond Bridge.
That an African-American actor playing an African character, drawing inspiration from comics authored by the most influential African-American intellectual in decades, amongst an overwhelmingly black cast, brought to the screen by a mostly black crew became such a global phenomenon shattered Hollywood’s assumption that whiteness was uniquely universal. Therefore, T’Challa will have had a special resonance for black audiences seeing someone like them not only take centre stage, but do so in our culture’s mightiest epic. However, that’s not my experience to explain but I want to note that it’s there and that it matters – a lot.
That said, as I’ve already discussed this portrayal had abundant appeal to non-black audiences as well. I hesitate to speak for all white people, but I doubt many of us spent much of Black Panther wishing Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross and his dodgy American accent had been given more screentime. The film – and Boseman starring role in it – demonstrated that blackness and Africaness were only a barrier to mainstream appeal if studios made it one.
Boseman was crucial to making this possible. Marvel’s original plan had been to have the Wakandans speak with British or American accents, until Boseman – perceiving that this would rather uncut the idea of the kingdom as a part of Africa that had been allowed to develop free of the stain of colonialism – told the studio this was a “dealbreaker” for him.
Indeed, Boseman played an unusually decisive role in shaping his character. T’Challa made his first appearance in the MCU in Captain America: Civil War which was shot before Ryan Coogler was chosen to write and direct Black Panther. The Russo brothers, Civil War’s directors, were reluctant to impose their vision on the central character of someone else’s film. Therefore, they asked Boseman to read some of the comics and then relied on his interpretation of T’Challa. It is, therefore, to Boseman’s considerable credit that T’Challa not only immediately felt like a fully rounded character but that his evolution across three further films felt perfectly natural.
That evolution is interesting and unusual because it is as much ethical as it is emotional. The young king is reliably noble, but his sense of this demands of him shifts. In Civil War, he goes from seeking retribution for the murder of his father, to seeing a parallel between this motivation and that which has propelled the film’s villain to commit his atrocities. In his stand-alone film, he is initially guided by the inherited assumption that as king his role is to ensure Wakanda stays isolated from the violent world around it. This is very directly challenged by the return to the kingdom of a cousin who the previous king and Black Panther – T’Challa’s father – had abandoned in the US as child to experience the cruelty and injustice that American society visits on people with dark skin. T’Challa rejects his cousin’s demand that Wakanda conquer the rest of the world, but accepts his charge that its isolationism has been an act of moral cowardice. He responds by opening the kingdom up to the world and sharing the fruits of its technological and social progress.
A different actor might have depicted T’Challa with an effortless suave or swagger. Boseman was more subtle than this. He always injects a note of unease into T’Challa’s interactions. The earnest young king feels the weight of his kingdom upon him and is reluctant to relax lest he let it slip.
Paradoxically, this makes it easier for us in the audience to imagine him commanding the authority necessary to see off a dangerous demagogue, rallying people for an apparently hopeless fight against an alien invasion and undoing millennia of aloofness from the outside world. There’s a whole sub-genre of management advice devoted to the benefits of leaders showing vulnerability. And Boseman’s T’Challa is a perfect fictional representation of this. He is nervous because he wants to do the right thing, hence it functions as a visible sign of his moral convictions. Similarly, his guardedness is a sign of his honesty. We instinctively know that character like Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark deply glib, frenetic, oversharing as a defence mechanism, grabbing attention away from unacknowledged feelings and unsavoury motives. Boseman thereby uses dignified reserve to convey trustworthiness.
This not only adds credibility to his character, but makes their dramatic arc work. If a character’s evolution is primarily about shifting ethical values, then for the audience to feel this has dramatic weight, they must sense that morals are crucial to the character.
Hence when having been almost killed by his cousin, T’Challa finds himself on the ancestral plane and confronts his father about abandoning a child, we are not only getting the personal drama of a man whose spent his life fearing that he will fail his father, realising that in fact his father has failed him, but Boseman shows us the drama of a statesman making the historic decision to embrace a shift of moral paradigms.
I submit that it is no coincidence, that the two films in which Boseman’s T’Challa plays the largest role – Civil War and Black Panther – are also the smartest and most thematically rich entries in the MCU canon.
The subtlety, humanity and gravitas of his acting, combined with an inherently interesting character to create a magnificent performance. His death will inevitably mean it is viewed with a twinge of sadness. However, none of its power will be diminished. If anything it is likely that Boseman will now become even more emblematic: the James Dean of generation that feels some of the weight of responsibility that T’Challa does and rebels with cause.
Thanks to Boseman, T’Challa will be a name to conjure with across the globe and down the generations.