I remember seeing “Avengers: Endgame” in the theater. Two hours into a film already overflowing with thrilling moments, King T’Challa at last made his entrance, flanked by his trusted confidantes and leading the Wakandan army. And before he uttered a single word, as he appeared in a distant but instantly recognizable silhouette, another member of the audience gave voice to what all of us were thinking when he shouted at the top of this lungs, “Oh, HELL yeah!”
You can say what you want about the Marvel movies. You can say they are popcorn entertainment. (Truth, and there is nothing wrong with that.) You can say they are formulaic. (Also true.) But bringing a character to life in such a way that they inspire that kind of visceral reaction, just by barely appearing onscreen, is the mark of an actor of true power, presence, and depth. That kind of response does not come from a costume, but a person.
Like any good MCU fan, I was excited to see “Black Panther” when it came out. I didn’t go opening weekend (I almost never do), but I was eager to go soon. But I was fortunate enough to be in a movie theater that weekend, seeing something else, and I will never forget the experience. Waiting in the theater lobby on a Saturday afternoon, I saw the line of people, mostly African-American, waiting to get into the next “Black Panther” screening. I saw parents and kids of all ages, which wasn’t too surprising. But I saw their grandparents and great-grandparents, people who one would not expect to watch a Marvel movie even at home. I saw whole families dressed as though they were headed to church. And it wasn’t until then that I understood what a moment this film was. Intellectually, in my privileged little bubble, I knew it was a milestone to have such a major Hollywood film feature a cast comprised almost entirely of people of color. But I didn’t realize until seeing this crowd just what that meant. And I was at once sorry to NOT be seeing it on opening weekend, glad that I was not taking away a seat from someone else who deserved to experience the film before me, and grateful to be able to see at least this part of the moment.
It feels cold-hearted to talk about recasting the role of T’Challa, but it’s important. It is both impossible and imperative to replace Chadwick Boseman. Impossible because that kind of grace, resolve, and power, onscreen and off, are in short supply. Imperative for the same reason. I think of my students who look up to the character and the actor, and for them if no one else, I want the work he has done, the example he has set, to continue. And let me not kid myself, I want it for me too. Chadwick Boseman was 43 years old. That’s a year younger than I am now. I look at what he leaves behind, achievements that were amazing enough by themselves but that, when I think about what we now know he was struggling with, become nothing short of unfathomable. To consider all of it is to feel fortunate for what we’ve been able to witness and sorry for what we won’t. I feel warned and inspired all at once.
Thank you, Mr. Boseman. Wakanda forever.