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A Tribute to Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman embodied a James Baldwin’s dictum: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” Boseman carried our history insistently, imbuing titans of the real and imagined worlds with the best parts of himself. He recognized that they, too, make metaphors out of history even as it is being rewritten with every breath. He understood how exhausting it is to be made accountable minute by minute, how small almost all of us become inside that kind of accounting.

What does it mean to be a cinematic citizen of the mind — cheekbones writ large, smiling like a big idea? There’s self-possession in that understanding, broad-shouldered chin to the sun. Restorer, re-historicizer of the Black backdrop in America and elsewhere. What about masculinity and isolation? What about the unrelenting gravity of community expectations and aspirations? Right in the nexus of need, trying to Mashed Potato between expression, obligation, light bills and wonder. How does history render the heavy load of itself unto itself?

In lead roles, Boseman mostly played the outlier: the one with conviction, the one with enough crust and wherewithal to understand that everybody from the high steppers to the low downs is made of antiquity, sunlight and iron. What happens with that mix is the real alchemy, and he used it to re-dimension their largess and redefine their rough multitudes. The human capacity to harm other humans is as inexhaustible as gravity but not as inevitable.

During the week I’m writing this, Jacob Blake was paralyzed when Kenosha, Wis., police officers shot him in the back seven times in front of his three children. And in the aftermath the W.N.B.A. and the N.B.A. and the M.L.S. and even the M.L.B. all refused to practice or play. And on the same day Jacob Blake was shot, Chadwick Boseman was dying from an illness that was nobody else’s business.

It’s not a metaphor that Chadwick Boseman died on Jackie Robinson Day 2020. It’s only not enough and gone too soon, the same way you might catch the tasseled edge of someone rounding a winter corner just as the flurries settle on your forehead and cheeks.

Like all of us Black men born in the 1970s, Boseman was part of the generation directly or indirectly bequeathed PTSD by the conscripts returning from the Vietnam War. Fathers, uncles, older cousins, neighbors — they all came back with language that could only be syncopated through the body — the meat of it, the destruction of it, the abandonment of it. Undo the body, and the brain will follow.

It’s hard not to think about unbuckled history while watching Boseman’s Stormin’ Norman in “Da 5 Bloods.” He’s complicit in violence even as he tries to free himself of it. He sees the long history of it being revisited bullet by bullet and can’t figure out how to stop it. The persistent conundrum of masculinity, whether in a ballpark in Brooklyn, a courtroom in Connecticut or a Hollywood premiere.

There’s no possible way that you can show it exactly how it happened. But you feel responsible for things being as authentic as they can be. You don’t want to show the sugarcoated version of the person. You’re not free unless you can show the good and the bad, all sides of them. So to me, when I play a character it’s important that I can show every aspect of them.

— Chadwick Boseman, from an interview with Shadow & Act

As distractingly beautiful as he was, Boseman still managed to let the characters he played be seen fully with all their rips and scuffs. There’s a chaotic scene in “Get On Up” that takes place right after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which Boseman as James Brown admonishes the crowd for trying to get onstage to dance with him. “Let’s represent ourselves,” he says. “You make me look bad. We are Black. Don’t make us all look bad.” As if history needs a kind of veneer, even in the moment. Liberation’s opposite from James Brown, who loosened up almost everybody who camel walked with him.

Sometimes a country dislikes its metaphor so much that it covers up in a brocade of sycophancy. Sometimes language misshapes because of insistent violence: decorum forgotten, referendums ignored, and the racism flags are everywhere with their snakes and stars and mismatched colors twisting over the local houses. On the marquee at the theater across the street: a poster for “Black Panther” with Chadwick Boseman’s unmasked face looking down, clawed gloves curled inward toward him. In the unrepentant shadows it’s hard to tell if he’s studying or mediating, but it’s still a beatitude of Blackness: color as signifier, color as artifact, color as stone cold fact.

We can never know the authentic version of a person, whether it’s Jackie Robinson or Thurgood Marshall or Chadwick Boseman costumed as T’Challa. Whatever we think we know about the actor, one thing is for real: He shared his characters’ nuances like gentle libations — and by “share” I mean that physically, how he held them out to us with both hands. Here, take this, he says, and in his cupped palms is a memory of a first at bat or a thunderclap from a distant Tuesday or a bright morning in Wakanda when the sun, just cresting the infinite skyline, blink against the mirrored windows. This is for you, he says, and we get to see all the possibility he wants us to know.


Adrian Matejka is the author of four collections of poetry, including, most recently, “Map to the Stars.”

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