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Chadwick Boseman in Avengers Image Credit: Disney

Chadwick Boseman, the actor who found fame as the star of ‘Black Panther’ and who also portrayed path-breaking Black figures such as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, died Friday.

He was 43. A statement posted on Boseman’s Instagram account said the actor learnt in 2016 that he had stage 3 colon cancer, which had progressed to stage 4. It said he died in his home, with his wife and family by his side.

“It is with immeasurable grief that we confirm the passing of Chadwick Boseman,” the statement said.

“A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much,” the statement said. “From ‘Marshall’ to ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ August Wilson’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy.”

Cultural touchstone

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Chadwick Boseman Image Credit: AP

Boseman was best known for his role as T’Challa, or the Black Panther, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda in the 2018 Marvel superhero movie ‘Black Panther’.

The film was a cultural touchstone — the first major superhero movie with an African protagonist; the first to star a majority Black cast; and in Ryan Coogler, the first to employ a Black writer and director.

The film represented a moment of hope and pride for African American moviegoers, many of whom planned special outings to see the film and came dressed in African-inspired clothing and accessories.

Wakanda was powered by a mystery metal, vibranium, and had evaded the historical traumas endured by much of the rest of Africa, freeing it from the ravages of both colonialism and postcolonialism. The phrase “Wakanda forever” became a hashtag and a rallying cry.

‘Black Panther’ went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of the year and was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture. It won three Academy Awards — in the best original score, best costume design and best production design categories.

Boseman originated the Black Panther film role two years earlier in Marvel’s ‘Captain America: Civil War’, and reprised the part twice more in 2018’s ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and 2019’s ‘Avengers: Endgame’.

The statement on Boseman’s Instagram account said it was “the honour of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in ‘Black Panther’.”

His character T’Challa, king and protector of technologically advanced Wakanda, was the first black superhero in mainstream American comics, having been featured in ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1966.

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The cast of Black Panther at the Sag Awards Image Credit: AFP

The Marvel film was celebrated as an important cultural moment for its mainly black cast, and for subverting stereotypes by depicting a prosperous African country that takes in refugees and extends its culture and technology to poorer nations.

Boseman shrugged off doubters who tried to convince him not to give the superhero an African accent.

“There was a time period where people would ask me questions about whether or not an audience could sit through a movie with a lead character that spoke with that accent,” he said at the time.

“I became adamant about the fact that it’s not true,” he added.

Iconic roles

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Black Panther Image Credit: Disney

Boseman also portrayed baseball icon Jackie Robinson in ‘42’, in 2013, soul singer James Brown in ‘Get On Up’, in 2014, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in ‘Marshall’, in 2017.

Brian Helgeland, the writer and director of ‘42’, which gave Boseman his breakout role, said that Boseman reminded him of sturdy, self-assured icons of 1970s virility, like Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood.

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“It’s the way he carries himself, his stillness — you just have that feeling that you’re around a strong person,” Helgeland said. “There’s a scene in the movie where Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, puts his arm around him as a kind of show of solidarity. But Chad flips it on its head. He plays it like, ‘I’m doing fine, I’m tough as nails, but go ahead and put your arm around me if it makes you feel better.’ I think that’s who Chad is as a person.”

Early years

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Chadwick Boseman Image Credit: NYT

Boseman was born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, the youngest of three boys. His mother, Carolyn, was a nurse and his father, Leroy, worked for an agricultural conglomerate and had a side business as an upholsterer.

“I saw him work a lot of third shifts, a lot of night shifts,” Boseman told The New York Times last year. “Whenever I work a particularly hard week, I think of him.”

His closest role models were his two brothers: Derrick, the eldest, a preacher in Tennessee; and Kevin, a dancer who has performed with the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey troupes and toured with the stage adaptation of ‘The Lion King’.

In high school, Boseman was a serious basketball player but turned to storytelling after a friend and teammate was shot and killed. Boseman processed his emotions by writing what he eventually realised was a play. When it was time to consider colleges, he chose an arts programme at Howard University, with a dream of becoming a director.

At Howard, he took an acting class with Tony Award-winning actress and director Phylicia Rashad, who helped him get into an elite theatre programme at the University of Oxford, an adventure he later learnt had been financed by a friend of hers: Denzel Washington.

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Get On Up Image Credit: Supplied

After college, Boseman moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, where he spent his days in coffee shops — playing chess and writing plays to direct, some of which were influenced by hip-hop and Pan-African theology.

To earn money, Boseman taught acting to students at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He landed one-off television roles in ‘Law & Order’, ‘CSI: NY’, and ‘Cold Case’ and eventually booked a recurring role in the 2007-09 ABC Family series ‘Lincoln Heights’.

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Chadwick Boseman Image Credit: AP

The show filmed in Los Angeles and afforded Boseman his first real taste of Hollywood.

“Before that, I had just wanted to be an artist in New York,” he said. “I didn’t understand that coming to LA and trying to be a film actor was a completely different thing.” — With additional inputs from AFP and Reuters