The shock of Chadwick Boseman’s passing came with layers.
There was the fact that this vibrant, talented, generation-defining artist died at the age of just 43, after a four-year battle with colon cancer. Then there’s that last part. This actor filmed his Black Panther role in Marvel films, as well as movies like 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, and the upcoming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—a grueling schedule by any account—while quietly receiving cancer treatment.
What phenomenal strength and determination that must have taken.
When you learn about the human, the person, behind a legacy like that, it’s alway illuminating. But learning the cancer battle that Boseman kept hidden while doing it stabs at the heart with a sharp heat that’s hard to shake. I understand it.
It’s the striking realization that we don’t know what people are carrying with them. Even when we’re celebrating a person, we don’t know their struggle. We don’t know the daily victories they may measure their lives by. We don’t know, truly, the work that goes not only into any excellence they may achieve, but their mere existence.
We measure people by their successes and their failures, when it’s the act of getting through it—and how—that merits the scrutiny, the appreciation.
This is a generalization, but you would be shocked to learn how many people you encounter daily who are getting through, often invisibly, quietly, stoically.
That’s not to downplay in any way the outrageous accomplishment Boseman achieved, or what it must have taken to do all of that while fighting this devastating and violent disease.
But it speaks to the ways that we erase and ignore the disabled community, that we don’t pause long enough to empathize with people’s journeys—only what we see at face value. That we don’t want to stare at the ugly and painful truth of humanity long enough to realize how many of us are at war for our lives.
What is presented is merely the product of the work to make it palatable and pleasant for everyone else.
I can’t speak to the experience Boseman had filming these phenomenal movies while also battling cancer, or what it took to contribute so much to the film industry— to our culture—while engaged in that fight. But I can speak to the idea of composure.
I attended high school full time while being treated for leukemia. It is and will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about how difficult it was.
None of this happens without support. My family rallied around me in ways that I can never repay, and it is my hope that anyone who goes through that horror has that advantage on their side. It’s as close as anything comes to a lifeline.
My parents centered their lives around my care, my twin brother became a therapist and tutor, and my two younger siblings were asked to grow up far earlier than was fair in order to accommodate the attention I needed. I can’t even think about what it must have been like for all of them to take that on while also lifting me up; I break down when I do. They are why I survived.
It’s been 15 years since I finished my treatment. When people find out now that I’m a cancer survivor, they’re shocked and immediately emotional. They had no idea. That’s the point.
I don’t know what Boseman’s support system was, but from what I’ve seen and read about his family, I can imagine it was robust and fierce.
If I could project without being too presumptive, I’d imagine the watershed love and appreciation he received for the work he was doing bolstered him, too.
Chadwick Boseman was T’Challa, Black Panther, the King. He wore that crown with power, certitude, and joy. He knew what it meant, because he heard it. The significance of that crown, of his presence on screen in the Marvel movies, swirled around him constantly. It was elucidated in every interview, thrust on him by appreciative fans, and put in constant perspective by the industry. The impact was the pleasure.
Kindness. Praise. Appreciation. Astonishment. It’s akin to medicine when you’re going through the disease. The experience is so horrible. When your efforts to be a human, alone, is acknowledged, it means the world. He made cinematic and cultural history amidst the battle. I’m heartened to know that Boseman received that. You can tell in interviews and tributes that he did. He got to really, deeply hear it. I wonder how much it powered him through.
These affirmations matter because cancer is an exercise of defeat. It is defined by loss. Losing energy, losing health, losing hair, losing your body. Any insinuation that you’re “winning” in any way becomes undeniably profound.
I understand why Boseman kept his cancer battle from the public. No one wants to be defined by it. And he had his eyes on the mission, a mission for his people that existed outside of himself, no matter what he endured while carrying it out. There was a story that finally was going to be told, and it was not his. I can’t think of an act more generous.
A segment of an interview Boseman did in 2017 with my friend Matthew Jacobs of The Huffington Post has gone viral overnight. Jacobs suggests how exhausting his filming schedule at that point was, with Marvel movies and biopics all in production simultaneously. He suggests, empathetically, that Boseman must have been “put through the ringer.” In the transcript, Boseman responds, “Oh, you don’t even know. [laughs] You have no idea. One day I’ll live to tell the story.”
It puts into perspective not just what it must have taken to work a Marvel film schedule and craft a Marvel film body while being pummeled by cancer, but it illuminates his character while doing it. It could have been so easy to accrue sympathy fame had he gone public with his diagnosis. His quotes hint at what he kept close to himself, what he protected. It’s beautiful.
Because we so quickly label and judge people, especially when they’re sick, we underestimate what they’re capable of. Boseman made Hollywood history and changed our culture forever. He also fought cancer while doing it. It’s an astounding thing. Cancer survivors, specifically, understand that.
It’s corny and maybe too on the nose, but cancer has entered my life in too many ways and I’ve witnessed firsthand that those who battle it are as close to real superheroes as we have. It’s not me flattering myself. It’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.
But I do, if I’m being honest, carry this triumph and the scars of the battle I waged with me every day. If there’s any self-esteem I have, it’s energized by that history, and the confidence and strength that grows from it.
Chadwick Boseman was a superhero.