Chadwick Boseman and the Mourning of Personal Icons

Rik Mayall died on my birthday.

Not the day I was born, of course. On June 9th, 1982, he was about to appear in The Young Ones as his career began a steady incline to becoming one of the irreverent, post-modern Comic Strip crowd of anarchic, anti-establishment comedians of the ‘80s. It was rather my 32nd birthday back in 2014, a day marred by the passing of someone I genuinely considered a celebrity icon. Not simply for the fact, by some cosmic coincidence, he suddenly passed away at just 56 years old on a day I normally celebrate, Mayall’s death meant something to me, as a fan of the man and his work. It hurt.

Fast forward to May of 2017. I’m at work on a normal day (remember when we all went to work as normal?), checking my phone, and up it pops: Roger Moore has passed away at 89 years old. A lump formed in my throat. Moore was a childhood hero for me. Pierce Brosnan was my generation’s Bond, but Moore was my Bond, the one I grew up watching as an impressionable young boy in the ’80s. The man himself seemed charming and kind, and I had even seen him live on stage in Wolverhampton, no less, around six months before his death. He was aged but no less the engaging raconteur. Like Mayall, I imagined Roger would live forever and when he died, so did a little of my childhood. For similar reasons, I dread the day we lose the other great 007, Sean Connery.

These examples illustrate the strange moments when we lose people we never met, never would have met, but whose passing cuts deep. This weekend, many of us had that same feeling once again with the passing of Chadwick Boseman.

Mayall was a shock. Moore was unexpected and sad. Boseman’s slow decline and death from colon cancer at just 43 is nothing short of tragic.

Many have commented on how remarkable it was not just that he kept his condition private except to his closest family and friends, but that he continued to work following his diagnosis on projects that transformed him from respected character actor to full-blown cinematic icon – two of the biggest Avengers movies in history, 21 Bridges and, of course, the supreme Black Panther which stands out among the jewels in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a multitude of reasons. Boseman defined a new era of hero as T’Challa, King of Wakanda, while in a battle for his life and still managed to deliver a career-defining performance (to that point at least) which everyone expected would, over time, see him grow into a historic black actor akin to a Poitier, Freeman or Washington. That we will never see such a journey happen is just one sad fact among many.

Boseman’s passing cuts even deeper right now given what he represented. He was, in some sense, more than just an actor. He was, quietly, the arbiter of a growing Black Hollywood, a reckoning on cinematic white privilege decades in the making. Black Panther captured a zeitgeist deeper than a mere superhero extravaganza. Ryan Coogler’s film contributed to the broader movement for equality, rights and black power across the Western world.

Boseman’s dignified and heroic performance as T’Challa allowed the picture a gravitas many such superhero films lack, and the man himself radiated a similar sense of calm, poise, intelligence and grace. He was no doubt imperfect, as we all are, yet he felt true. His kindness, generosity and interest in the world came across as real, without artifice. And as his silent suffering and courageous battle against the cruellest of enemies proves, Boseman was also genuinely brave. A man of strength and innate fortitude who did not go gentle into that good night, and imbued a positivity and determination to still create, encourage and entertainment that many would have struggled in his position to find.

What fascinates me whenever we lose someone of global renown is how it might affect us as an audience. It is, often, a subjective level of grief.

When the basketball star Kobe Bryant died tragically at the beginning of the year with his young daughter, I registered natural sadness at their fate but on a personal level, his death didn’t impact me in the manner of some of the previous examples. It was tragic and lingered with me for a while but not being a fan of his or his sport, and having only really heard of him tangentially, it didn’t feel like a personal loss. It’s strange how that wasn’t the case with Mayall or Moore or recently Boseman given they were not people I knew. They weren’t friends or family or even acquaintances. They were people who, in their work and persona, I came to admire. Yet their loss felt akin to the death of, if not a friend, then someone whose life I personally cared about. It’s an odd dissonance, such a feeling. It is divined entirely by your own experience.

With Boseman, it feels like we have a collective experience that hasn’t been shared in some time. The announcement of his death had the (perhaps dubious) honour of becoming the most liked tweet on Twitter ever, which speaks to the power of his influence. Unaware of his cancer battle, I had long mused on the next, post-Avengers Endgame phase of the MCU likely being constructed around T’Challa (and Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel) to the same degree the first era was defined by Robert Downey Jr & Chris Evans’ protagonists.

Despite only being on screen four times over three years, Boseman’s impact on the biggest motion picture franchise since Star Wars was enormous on a cultural level. He gave joy in that arena to, genuinely, millions of people. It’s telling that many of the outpourings of grief speak to his Black Panther role with epitaphs such as #RestInPower or #RIPKing or #WakandaForever, which has become something of an adopted chant representing strength and honour, or as some have suggested a register of black excellence.

The only equivalent death at a young age from someone who pervaded the cultural consciousness in a similar way that I can recall in recent years is that of Heath Ledger, in 2008 at just 28. I can remember where I was when I heard about that too, strangely; in a hotel room in the West Country working away on a cold, dark January morning. I could barely think of anything else all day, stunned by Ledger’s demise at an even earlier age than Boseman, in advance of what would turn out to be a legendary, similarly career-defining performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight later that summer.

Yet even Ledger’s death, as tragic and shocking as it was, didn’t seem to mark the outpouring of grief as Boseman’s has. Nor indeed did the sad death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (again in 2014) at 46, which too shocked and saddened me as a fan of his work. Robin Williams’ suicide at 63 in (2014 again, a terrible year for loss) certainly marked millions too. This isn’t an attempt to suggest that Boseman’s death means more in any way, or to try and rank the impact of these actors’ passings, but rather to show how strange and subjective losing a well-liked or loved famous person is on the wider cultural fabric. I wonder if losing someone like this right now, at a point millions are in a heightened state of anxiety and trauma at world events, could be a factor.

Boseman’s death, to an extent, chips away a little at the hope that has sorely been lacking in 2020.

It’s fair to say that we are surrounded by villains on the public stage right now, be it dictators refusing to let go of their fiefdoms despite the will of the people, or sinister populists denying that Covid-19 even exists, legions of misguided souls being herded into demonstrations by manipulative media figures and hucksters, or just the sheer incompetence by leaders and government figures across the Western world in tackling our global crisis. Amidst this, people are still dying, protests marking a cry for equality and justice from the black community are sadly stoking a white supremacist base whose power might end up re-electing the most hateful President in American history, and all the while the planet burns as a foreboding backdrop to suggest all of this is just prelude. The real fight for our future is yet to come.

So while Chadwick Boseman might have been an actor, a husband, a friend and a gentleman, he also came across as a good man with honourable intentions amidst a sea of corrupt, dishonourable sharks swimming openly. And now he’s gone.

Mayall, Moore, Ledger, Hoffman, Williams – they all hurt, and still do, and they are just a few examples of many. We will all have our own names in a list such as this. Boseman feels also like a reminder that life and fate can be cruel, and if we have people we love in our lives, or a modicum of happiness, we should recognise and cherish it. I hope Mr. Boseman rests well, and that he passed knowing he was a king to many, and a hero to all.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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