Chadwick Boseman Forever
By Tammy Joyner
While Black Panther was securing a spot among the top 10 highest-grossing superhero movies of all time, its breakout star was busy attending a can’t-miss event in the summer of 2018.
It wasn’t a red-carpet premiere or television talk show promoting the billion-dollar blockbuster. Nor was he making the rounds on the celebrity circuit.
Instead, Chadwick Boseman was mingling with cousins and other kin at his family reunion in North Charleston, S.C. Noshing on seafood puff pastry, chicken and waffles and collard greens and catching up on family doings was a chance for the bona fide A-lister to put Hollywood on pause for at least a weekend and relish time in his home state.
“He was just there as a family member. He wasn’t there as the big-time star of Black Panther,” recalls S.C. Rep. JA Moore, a well-known North Charleston chef who catered Boseman’s family reunion that year.
Nonetheless, the Boseman clan gave a bit of a nod to their famous relative’s meteoric rise in Hollywood.
The reunion theme? Black Panther. Of course.
After all, Boseman wasn’t just world-famous. He was the pride of South Carolina, especially in his hometown of Anderson, a former textile mill town of fewer than 30,000, where Friday night high school football reigns.
And now, even in death, Chadwick Boseman reigns.
Who else could command an hour-long tribute followed by a commercial-free airing of their blockbuster Marvel and Disney-backed movie on network TV 48 hours after their death?
His unexpected death rocked the world.
Days after the actor’s Aug. 28 death from colon cancer, tens of thousands signed a petition to replace the confederate monument in his hometown of Anderson with a statue of Boseman. By mid-September, more than 180,000 people had signed the petition.
Removing Confederate monuments is a controversial and emotionally charged idea in a country already roiling in racial unrest. As it stands in South Carolina, it is impossible, without legislative action, to remove or alter any war memorials, including Confederate monuments. Repeated efforts to reach Anderson Mayor Terence Roberts were unsuccessful.
However, Kay Turner, a 29-year-old white resident of Anderson, said she is “perfectly fine” with replacing the Confederate monument with Boseman’s likeness.
“I’m a big fan of Marvel and I just like (Boseman’s) whole character and demeanor. He’s very stoic,” Turner said recently while on her way into the Anderson County courthouse. The Confederate monument towered overhead in the courtyard.
“That,” she said, gesturing toward the Confederate monument, “means nothing to me.”
Before he was Thurgood Marshall (Marshall), Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get On Up) or Black Panther, he was Chad Boseman.
Wing guard on the T.L. Hanna High School basketball team. A voracious debater. A teenage thespian who wrote plays and dreamed of being a director. The quiet jock who earned the coveted title of “Mr. T.L. Hanna” in his senior year.
“You had to be a pretty all-around guy to be voted Mr. T.L. Hanna,” said Wayne Jones, Boseman’s high school basketball coach.
Chadwick Boseman, in Hollywood as T’Challa returning home to the African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king, was still off in the distance.
But those who knew Boseman aren’t surprised. Hollywood was in his DNA.
“He had the Hollywood smile before he was Hollywood,” Jones said. But that wasn’t what made the reserved, humble six-footer memorable.
“He was a hard worker. Very dependable,” Jones recalled. “He was a ‘yes sir, no sir’ type of person who had a lot of family support. He never did anything wrong. He wasn’t going to stand on top of a table and beat on his chest and say ‘look at me.’ He never called attention to himself and would never do anything to embarrass himself, his family or the community.
“He was driven.”
It was that drive that drew Shelia Hilton’s attention to the then-ninth grader. Hilton was assistant principal at Hanna at the time.
“I kept seeing him everywhere. He was at basketball. He was in debate. If I went to a play, he was in the play. (I thought to myself) that’s a guy who has it all together. He was involved in everything.
“So when I first met him, I knew he was going to be somebody special and he was going to be doing great things with his life,” said Hilton, who later became Hanna principal, retiring in 2015.
Although she never saw him after he graduated from Hanna in 1995, they remained in touch through Facebook.
She recalled the time soon after he got to Hollywood.
Boseman had landed a small role as a criminal on the television show Law & Order. He asked the show’s writers about creating a more positive outcome for the character, Hilton recalled.
“The next day, (Boseman’s) agent (told him) ‘They said they didn’t want you back’,” she said.
“He had scruples. Even though he loved acting, he wasn’t willing to sell his soul,” Hilton said. “The thing is, I know he talked about that. You need to live by your faith. He was a Christian.”
Despite the setback in his early days of acting, Boseman never stopped collaborating with coworkers, writers and directors.
During the filming of Get On Up, the 2014 biographical film about James Brown, Boseman spent a weekend with the family of the late soul music legend, soaking up anecdotes and little-known stories and perfecting Brown’s mannerisms.
He was constantly aware of the message he was sending out into the world, Hilton said.
“I think he thought that even if you’re from a small town, you can achieve your life’s goals.”
"You have to cherish things in a different way when you know the clock is ticking. You're under pressure." - Excerpt from Boseman's 2018 commencement address at Howard University, his alma mater.
Boseman made good on those words.
Time may not have been on his side but tenacity was: half of the 16 movies he made during his career came out after he learned he had Stage III colon cancer in 2016.
The rounds of chemotherapy and surgeries didn’t stop him from doing some of his own stunts or collaborating with colleagues, writers and directors.
All the while few - not his fellow actors, the directors, Hollywood - knew he was sick.
Spike Lee, who directed Boseman in one of his last movies, Da 5 Bloods, recalled recently on ABC’s Entertainment Tonight how Boseman was always on time. Ready to work. He never complained or let on he was sick.
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler wrote a moving tribute in the Los Angeles Times about Boseman.
How the actor - in one day - learned some lines in the South African language of Xhosa so his character would seem more authentic.
How he attended auditions for supporting roles - something lead actors of big budget films normally didn’t do.
How after long days of filming, Coogler and Boseman would spend their evenings talking about costumes, various choreographies and the tone and direction for the movie.
Despite all of that, Coogler “wasn’t privy to the details of his illness. After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with illness the entire time I knew him.”
It left Hollywood reeling, but not hometown folks.
“Going through four years with cancer, not telling anybody, doesn’t surprise me,” Coach Jones said. “His family was very quiet, private people as well. He never did draw attention to himself. He didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for him. He was still working through chemo and surgeries. That was him. ‘I’m going to keep going as long as I can go and make it last as long as I can.’”
It wasn’t until he took on the role of African prince T’Challa in the movie Black Panther that the young man from Anderson, S.C., became a household name.
T’Challa, aka Black Panther, became the world’s first Black superhero. And the movie unapologetically showed the strength, intelligence and technological marvels of Wakanda, a country - albeit mythical - run by Black people.
From now on, at least in the imagination of Black children and comic book fans, Wakanda was indeed forever.
When Black Panther debuted, Boseman bought more than 300 tickets so that children who couldn’t afford to go would be able to see it, said Pamela Christopher, president and chief executive office of the Anderson Area Chamber of Commerce.
Boseman also rented out the local theater so that 460 friends and family members could see Black Panther on opening night, Christopher noted.
It was perhaps Boseman’s way of paying it forward.
Years before, actor Denzel Washington became Boseman’s secret benefactor so that the young actor could study acting at the prestigious Oxford University, Christopher recalled.
It paid off handsomely in perseverance and passion.
A week before school started in early September, Tyrika Ford had dropped by T.L. Hanna High School to pick up a class schedule and mask for her son. At the school’s entrance was a makeshift memorial to one of the school’s most famous alums. Flowers and a Black Panther mask framed a sign that said “THE BLACK PANTHER LIVES.”
“He’s awesome. Coming from Anderson to make it big on the screen,” said the Anderson newcomer.
Anderson was once known as the first southern town to use long-distance cables to carry electricity from hydroelectric power plants. It may soon become known as the birthplace of the world’s first Black superhero.
“I’m not a comic book guy but the pride and honor and call-to-action to every Black person and human being of this country (came) after watching Black Panther,” Rep. JA Moore said. “It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies that inspires you to be a better you. The value was so different from any other movie you could have seen. It really changed people.
“The loss is immeasurable,” Moore added. “There will never be another Chadwick Boseman. What he meant to the state cannot be replaced.”
Black Panther opened John Wright Jr.’s eyes to the racial realities that lie ahead for his sons Brazeal and Ballard, both of whom are Black and were adopted at birth. Wright and his wife Courtland are white.
Days after Boseman’s death, the young family was watching the movie aired on ABC as a tribute to Boseman.
At one point during the movie, Brazeal called out to his father. “Daddy, look!”
“What about it?”
“It’s like mine.”
In that moment, Wright realized the positive impact the movie had on African-American children.
“That’s what he did for so many kids with his star power, and his influence and status as a superhero who looks like them,” said Wright, a fourth-generation business owner in Anderson. “Growing up as a kid, I was always into Superman. It never dawned on me about the millions and millions of African-American kids who never had a superhero (who looked like them). And for the Black hero to be from Anderson makes it even more special.”
Brazeal will mark his fourth birthday, which is on Halloween, in his Black Panther costume.
THE CHADWICK AARON BOSEMAN FILES
1995 graduate of T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C.; Howard University, Bachelor of Fine Arts in directing, 2000.
Actor. Writer. Director
Wife, actress Taylor Simone Ledward; parents Leroy and Carolyn Boseman and brothers Derrick, a minister in Tennessee; and Kevin, a veteran Broadway dancer and former soloist with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Other Famous T.L. Hanna High School Alums
There’s something in the water fountain at T.L. Hanna High School, which has produced an impressive list of alumni who’ve gained fame. Here’s just a few of them:
James Robert “Radio” Kennedy. The intellectually-challenged man’s friendship with T.L. Hanna high school football coach Harold Jones inspired the 2003 movie “Radio” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. The two were friends for 55 years until Kennedy’s death at age 72 on Dec. 15, 2019.
James Edward “Jim” Rice.
Boston Red Sox left fielder and National Baseball Hall of Famer who played from 1974-1989. From 1975-1986, Rice hit 350 home runs. Only two other MLB players - Mike Schmidt and Dave Kingman - hit more home runs. Rice was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009.
James Michael Tyler.
The actor who played Gunther in the television sitcom “Friends.”