In years like 2020, movies and television begin to seem superfluous. Chadwick Boseman's tragic passing reminds us why they are not.
We all need escapism. Especially as life gets challenging or stressful. But there is something beyond escapism that movies and television can offer, something easy to forget, ignore, overlook, and take for granted. Not just among audiences but among the countless filmmakers and craftspeople who work in the entertainment industry.
What is that thing?
It connects to story at its deepest level. We tell stories to help show us the way. Metaphors to help build meaning our of the world and its events. We use characters as a guiding light, not a literal representation of things, but maybe a representation of the world as we wish it was. Of us as we wish we were. Or as we hope to maybe one day, in our finest moments... be.
This is where superheroes come from. But the fascination with the genre has also become a fascination with darkness. Can you turn it upside down and make it gritty and raw? Yes. Turns out you can not only do that, but you can keep doing it over... and over... and over...
But that's not what we are here for today. We are here to talk about that thing that can make stories transcend their medium and their time.
What is that thing?
Well, Chadwick Boseman actually embodied it. His death, and, more than that, his life, serve as reminders of what can actually be done. It has nothing to do with cameras, shot choices, plot, editing, or any of the fundamental building blocks we study and consider in this field. It has to do with something deeper, more easily overlooked. More powerful. More eternal.
In one word it could be called representation. But that's become a sterile social and political term that ignores the magical and transformative impact it can lend something as simple as a 2-hour motion picture.
In reading Black Panther director Ryan Coogler's phenomenal tribute to Boseman you get an immediate sense of how impactful Boseman was, not just on the world but on the creation of this critical character. Their partnership will live on forever.
I'm not the right person to speak to these ideas, and I can't relate to the impact Boseman, Coogler, and their work had on the culture. I am aware that what they did, and the impact it had, is one of the best things about stories and careers in storytelling.
My little anecdote is a fragment of what their work meant, but it's the beginning of a way into answering this question.
When I was very young, I came home upset having been teased at school for being Jewish. My father consoled me by telling me that Indiana Jones was played by a man who was Jewish (Harrison Ford is half Jewish.) He added that the man who directed the Indiana Jones movies (Steven Spielberg) was also Jewish.
Now he could have picked a lot of Jewish actors, stars, writers or directors. But there was a good reason to pick Indiana Jones at that moment in time, whether my father knew it or not. Indiana Jones was a heroic figure in popular culture, in the mainstream. I could look to that hero and say "Oh, that thing I'm teased for... that is also in this person. I am not alone. I can still be heroic."
The idea of a hero is core to this. Heroes are a part of our earliest stories. Not all stories are about heroes, but the ones that are speak to us across culture and across age. And they do it in a very important way.
Enter Black Panther.
I can only fathom a slim fraction of what it finally meant—FINALLY—for African American boys to look to the mainstream culture and see—for the first time—a hero like the Black Panther. I can only barely fathom what it was like for black men to point to Boseman, and the character he played, and finally be able to say to their kids, "See, look?"
Parents all over the world shared photos of their kids paying tribute to actor Chadwick Boseman, with many posing alongside Marvel Universe action figures and doing the 'Wakanda Forever' salute. https://t.co/hCD4j5QPK8 pic.twitter.com/ZjnubhpdvV— ABC News (@ABC) August 31, 2020
My father and I had our pick. Not just of Jewish filmmakers and actors, but heroes played by them. It was an easy problem to solve. For black men for generations, it has been an impossible one. To say nothing of black women, for whom it is STILL hard, as well as countless other poorly represented people of color and different genders in mainstream culture.
Even when you go back and look at the groundbreaking nature of the original Star Trek, which showed people of color as coworkers and equals in a utopian society, the key heroes were white men (also played by Jewish actors going back to my earlier point.)
Again, we've had it easy. It's important not just to have stories from within your culture, but examples within the mainstream culture.
There is something about it being a hero. A figure capable of great feats of courage and leadership, with a strong moral compass... that is something that stories have provided human beings since the dawn of time.
Representation in this way means not a sidekick. Not a villain. Not a conflicted person or a quota throw-in. Not comic relief. The Hero. The one to worship. The one to admire and emulate. Lone Ranger having Tonto doesn't do a whole lot of good for Native Americans in terms of representation.
There is enough room for stories that show exemplary heroics for all types of people.
The power of that cannot be understated.
It was critical that Black Panther be built for everyone. A movie for people of all backgrounds, and ethnicities. My white son loves Black Panther. The fact that he is black does not make him a niche hero any more than Superman being white made him a niche hero. But the critical thing is allowing room for heroes of all kinds to exist in the same space on equal footing.
Then we can start to shift and identify with whatever ones we want. But for far too long there was only really one kind to identify with.
There is an argument that Superman himself is a 'golem'. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster who were both the sons of Jewish immigrants escaping ethnic violence. They were victims of antisemitism, and the theory goes that they built a hero to protect those who were persecuted and could not protect themselves.
The importance of creating such a figure goes beyond putting text and ink on a page. It goes into the person who must embody it.
Enter Chadwick Boseman.
The man or woman who plays the hero in this instance takes on an extra heavy load. It's almost beyond belief that Boseman did all that while battling a life-threatening disease. It's a testament to his strength; his commitment to something lasting and important. And it goes far beyond what a movie or television show normally can do.
Boseman's career wasn't limited to playing the Black Panther. Among other great roles, he played Jackie Robinson. One key highlight of that particular telling of Robinson's story was its emphasis on how Robinson had to be better and stronger than everyone around him to exemplify the ideal and survive the onslaught of hate. He had to rely on what seems like an endless well of inner strength.
Boseman, it seemed, had the very same endless well.
He didn't stop with just playing the character on screen, he stayed in touch with fans, visited the terminally ill, and maintained appearances that he was in good health.
This is storytelling and storytellers at their very best, moving beyond simple 'hey, was the movie good?'
Sure, the movie was good. Boseman was good. But Boseman and the movie went far beyond good. They were good FOR the world. A bowl of broccoli that is masquerading as a plate of french fries. Things this healthy aren't also supposed to be so easy to digest and fun to eat.
Boseman's Black Panther, and career, were an example of showing not telling. He embodied the ideals, he delivered the goods, and he didn't preach it. The message went out to us all, and messenger carried that weight on his shoulders like it was nothing, never letting us know how much he was actually carrying.
To truly understand what his loss means, and what his career meant, we need to enter the mind of a child. Not in an immature sense, but to try and grasp the world from their perspective. One where the line between the hero and the actor playing the hero is blurred. One where heroes who look like you or are like you are important to find. Or enter the mind of a parent. Knowing that real people have flaws, but mythological heroes don't and you need those to exemplify correct behavior and action, to demonstrate what the human spirit is capable of.
Wait actually. Maybe we don't need to enter the mind of a child, because in point of fact, Chadwick Boseman was every bit the immortal hero he played on screen.