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It’s Hard to Make Dignity Interesting. Chadwick Boseman Found a Way.

I’ll confess to finding it odd that Boseman played these three roles so quickly. It seemed at first like a joke on the movies’ ongoing obsession with stories about exceptional Black Americans or like Hollywood was too lazy to imagine anyone else inhabiting the exceptions. The truth is that Boseman actually cornered a market with his inner elasticity and, at least for me, exploded the parameters of what biographical moviemaking ought to be. With him, “seems like” mattered more than “looks like.” It was daring, and he didn’t even seem aware of the risks.

What can an actor show us when he doesn’t even look like the people he’s playing? That always seemed peculiar, his resemblance to none of the three men. But Chadwick Boseman had these eyes. They weren’t Robinson’s, a young Marshall’s or Brown’s. In each case, Boseman’s eyes were too large (and his frame, while we’re at it, was too small). But, my, their sincerity and tenderness reached inside you. That’s what his eyes could do with entire personas: get to their point and go beyond it.

During this “great man” stretch, Boseman’s idea of the legends he embodied won out over verisimilitude. The movies themselves aren’t bold enough to let him go too deep or get too dark — “42” is more about how the Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) handled the team Robinson integrated. Nonetheless, Boseman made each man sexy, contemplative, certain.

“Seems like” took him to some beguiling places in “Get On Up,” that James Brown movie from 2014. He got Brown’s gunshot kinetics and percussive way with a conversation, his allure and mercurial short fuse. An audience might have had trouble harmonizing Brown’s contradictions — the libertine and conservative urges, his tyranny, paranoia and generosity, that he loved women and hit them. Boseman turned the friction of Brown’s personality into fire. The movie’s unruliness, its kitchen-sink way with a life story, its divergence from reality all probably would have overwhelmed a regular actor. Boseman, it turns out, was far from a regular actor.

The movie came and went that summer. What everybody missed was not only one of the year’s best performances but a milestone for a tired genre. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix (who played Johnny Cash) and, eventually, and Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) and Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland), Boseman didn’t attempt to sing. You’re hearing James Brown’s vocals. But Boseman obviates any editing tricks. The camera gets right up close to him as, say, he stands motionless — motionless for Brown, anyway — and belts “Try Me,” a cappella. Boseman was so fluent in the curl of Brown’s tongue and the aperture of his mouth as it sculpted and spat “I need you” and “I want you to stop my heart from crying” and “heh!” that the singer’s voice may as well have been the actor’s.

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