It takes a great man to play a great man; Chadwick Boseman did it four times!
To have the gravity, the intelligence, the physicality to portray any of his signature roles — Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa, the Black Panther — is a breathtaking feat, but to give four entirely different performances is a striking achievement. Screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker compared Chadwick to the late great John Cazale, another actor who created an impressive body of work in a very short time before cancer robbed us of him.
We met at the Art and Film Ball at LACMA. Laura Wasserman, a longtime friend, sat us next to each other because she figured we would have a “lot to talk about.” She couldn’t have been more right! Chadwick had just been announced as the star of “Black Panther,” based on a comic book I wrote for four years. I was a literal expert on the role that he was about to take on; and he was about to become for the African diaspora what Captain America is for the United States — the symbol of the best of us as a culture.
We spotted each other across the crowded room. He stepped up to me and said, “I know you want to talk about it” and we both broke into laughter! We spent a good chunk of the night talking about the Black Panther and Wakanda, the country he governs. If you want to have a conversation about the differences between Asian fighting styles, Afro Brazilian martial arts and the African arts that preceded capoeira, Chadwick is the guy to have that talk with. If you want to talk about the monarchy system and how to compensate for its flaws, Chadwick is that guy.
A few months later, I asked Chadwick to star in my film as Thurgood Marshall. He was reluctant. He loved the script and we wanted to work together, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play another historical character. Given he was the only person with the gravitas to play the role and the star power to get the movie made, I needed him to say yes.
So, I asked him, “Do you think a Thurgood Marshall should be made?” “Yes, of course” he said. “Well if you say yes, there will be a movie,” I replied. Chadwick was taken aback by the high-pressure tactic, but he understood the historical implications of Marshall’s career. For the greater good, he agreed to do the movie.
The experience was glorious. One of the blessings of the show was shooting in Buffalo. Being a small but lovely town, we spent a lot of time having fun together. By the time Chadwick, Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown were singing Boyz II Men songs together in perfect harmony while on set, you knew the cast had chemistry.
When we were on the road promoting the film, two moments really stick out for me. One was after an interview when we were given a book on the Black people who did the construction of the White House. We were both so excited to get the book. What a pair of nerds! The second was when he was giving the keynote speech at the national NAACP convention. The meeting was in Baltimore, Thurgood’s hometown. He wrote his own speech, polishing it for days. It was powerful, and perfect. What a writer and orator!
“Did you know? You must have known.” I didn’t know. As everyone was calling each other, comforting and remembering Chadwick, the question comes up very quickly in every conversation. From what I can tell, no one knew. Chadwick was beloved by everyone, but he was a quiet, introspective man, who was a dedicated artist and didn’t have use for the trappings of stardom. He kept a small, tight circle of very close friends, who are all talented in their own right, and his wife Simone, who he adored. His team was so loyal that anyone who knew of his illness kept it private.
He would never let disease define him. But more than that, he was a warrior that made every minute count and didn’t let a cancer diagnosis stop him from being his best self.
Chadwick’s dedication to his art was absolute. His love for his culture endless. His thirst for knowledge unquenchable. We lost a great man.