“As an African American artist and filmmaker, that’s my goal, every time,” the actor told TheWrap
The first time TheWrap spoke to Chadwick Boseman, it was the fall of 2014 and he had just come off the remarkable one-two punch of playing Jackie Robinson in “42” and James Brown in “Get on Up.” At the end of the conversation, he laughed that he was not looking to do another biopic anytime soon.
“Another biopic might pop up that I have to do, but before that I have to do a few other things, if not 10 other things,” he said. “And if we make it that far, I’ve already won anyway.”
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From that moment until his shocking death of cancer at the age of 43, Boseman made exactly 10 more movies: first “Gods of Egypt”; then “Captain America: Civil War,” the first of four Marvel films in which he played Black Panther; then another biopic, “Marshall,” in which he played U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; and also “Message From the King,” “21 Bridges,” Spike Lee’s recent “Da 5 Bloods” and the upcoming “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Just a handful of those roles – “42,” “Get on Up,” “Black Panther,” “Marshall” and “Da 5 Bloods” – would be a remarkable streak for any actor, much less one who during most of that time was undergoing treatment for colon cancer. Those roles also coincided with an era in which Hollywood was forced to look more seriously at Black cinema, in which the #OscarsSoWhite movement and the more recent social justice protests have shown just how desperately Hollywood needs to tell more diverse stories and celebrate artists of color.
And when we sat down with him and his “Black Panther” costar Michael B. Jordan for an Oscar magazine cover story in late 2018, Boseman made it clear that he was purposefully engaged in pushing the movie business in that direction. When I pointed out that he and Jordan had both gotten great roles in the past few years, and asked if he’d felt limited in what was available to him before that, his response was immediate.
“Yes,” he said quickly. “Like, yes. In choosing to do this, my manifesto has always been to do those those things…”
He paused. “First of all, a lot of people that came before us have done great things, you know? You have to pay homage to our predecessors, some of them still doing it. But at the same time, there are certain limitations that have always been there. What I have always wanted to do is to break those barriers in every way that I can. If I’m looking at something, I think, ‘How do I break a barrier in this role? What can I bring to the table that’s different?’
“So yeah, that’s my manifesto. As an African American artist and filmmaker, that’s my goal, every time. I just feel blessed to be living in a time period where we can have a ‘Creed,’ where can have a ‘Black Panther,’ we can have a ‘Get Out.’ We can have these things where you think, ‘Oh shoot, that’s fresh.’ And where people have the luxury of saying, ‘I like this movie but I don’t like that one. This one fulfilled my cultural needs and this one didn’t.’
“The debates that are going on among our people about movies, that’s refreshing in itself. I think we all have watched this thing change over the last 10 years. And it’s not completely changed, still – I have to say that. It’s not like it’s the same number of opportunities. But it’s great to see it be different from what I knew before. Things that were innovative five years ago, six years ago are not innovative now.”
His manifesto, Boseman said, existed as far back as 2003, when he was hired to play a stereotypical teenage thug on the ABC soap opera “All My Children.” “You get a role and you don’t really know, especially with a soap opera,” he said. “You don’t know the full scope of what’s going to happen, you don’t know where they’re going to take the character. You don’t have a broad sense of it.
“For me, when I got it, I was like, ‘This is not part of my manifesto. This is not part of what I want to do. How can I make it work?’ Because if they don’t know where it’s going, there’s possibly room for me to adjust this and change it. As you said, it’s stereotypical on the page, but ‘The Wire’ could be viewed as stereotypical on the page, and all TV series that are worth their salt steal a little bit from ‘The Wire’ nowadays.”
He grinned. “This was not that, God bless ‘em. I remember going home and thinking, ‘Do I say something to them about this? Do I just do it?’ And I couldn’t just do it. I had to voice my opinions.” When he complained that the role stereotyped young Black men, he was fired – but the character was nonetheless softened to some degree for subsequent actors who played it, including Michael B. Jordan.
“The good thing about it was, it changed it a little bit for (Michael),” Boseman said. “They said, ‘You are too much trouble,’ but they took my suggestions, or some of them, and passed them on.
“And for me, honestly, that’s what this is about. It’s not about me, it’s not about him. It’s about, when he decides he’s going to do a movie, when I decide I’m going to do a movie, it creates jobs for other people. That’s where we are in our careers. That’s one of the things that’s begun to settle into my consciousness: ‘This means something beyond the fact that I have a job. Now, I have a job and other people have jobs, too. And it’s not just Black people who have jobs. People of all races have jobs.’
“The stories that I’ve heard from Jamie (Foxx), who I worked with, the stories you hear from Denzel (Washington), you go, ‘Oh, shoot, I didn’t have to deal with that.’ And it’s the same. As an artist, you educate the people you work with – producers, casting directors, various people on the set are educated by the experience of working with you. When they go to the next thing, they already know a little bit more about you from a cultural perspective. So when they deal with the next person it’s not the same preconceived notions, it’s not the same pitfalls.
“And that’s been set up by Sidney Poitier and Denzel and Laurence Fishburne and Sam Jackson and Don Cheadle – all those people are educating along the way. And we’re doing that same thing every time we do a film. And we’re educating our audiences. Audiences all have to be taught to see stuff in a different way. All of this is part of that broadening of people’s bandwidth.”
Chadwick Boseman's 10 Most Memorable Roles, From Jackie Robinson to Black Panther (Photos)
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The actor died Friday at age 43 of colon cancer
Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer on Friday at age 43, made a striking impression in both TV and on the big screen in his too-short time in the spotlight.