Why you should care

These kinds of films tend to change the lives of those in them. 

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Chadwick Boseman stood in front of an intent crowd in Washington, D.C., as he accepted an award as a trendsetter from the Congressional Black Caucus. He spoke with the confidence of a seasoned actor (he is) and the heightened language of a playwright (that too). The topic he gravitated toward: his relationship to his audience. “My professors at Howard constantly implored us to avoid the comfortability that comes from seeking the approval of the audience. Instead, we should seek to challenge our audience, to educate them,” he said in September 2016. “As artists, we must be our own tastemakers, not those that critique us.”

In mere hours, at theaters throughout North America, Boseman will offer up his latest performance, as the Black Panther, to a very big audience. And so far it promises to be both pleasing and tastemaking. Marvel’s first movie starring its first African superhero, Black Panther is primed for a historic box office run, with an expected draw of some $170 million in its opening weekend. The film boasts a star-studded cast, a young but seasoned director, Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), and glowing critical reviews (98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).

Black Panther’s release has drawn close comparisons to that of Wonder Woman, the 2017 film directed by Patty Jenkins. It’s similarly a big-budget movie ($200 million pre-marketing) starring and directed by an under-represented group in Hollywood. When Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, last saw Boseman, he says he asked the actor: “Are you ready?” Films like this, after all, have the potential to radically change a person’s life. Boseman’s answer was simple, Robertson says. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m ready.’ ”

Boseman, 41, has been inching his way into the public consciousness for quite some time, slowly building his résumé. Born and raised in South Carolina, he says his brother, a dancer, first led him to dream of a creative, non-cookie-cutter career. The budding star directed plays in high school and was accepted to Howard University, where he graduated in 2000 with a bachelor of fine arts in directing.

How He Got Here:

He wanted to pursue acting, directing and writing, but his agent encouraged him to choose one. Acting was the easiest of the three to break into. “You can assist people [as a director], but nobody is going to hire you,” Boseman told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “I found myself auditioning, because I guess I didn’t want to assist certain people.”

The writing was hardly for naught, however: One of Boseman’s plays, Deep Azure, was reviewed by the Chicago Tribune, which praised his language for being “creative” and “slick.” The play, based on an actual shooting that took place not far from Howard’s campus the year Boseman graduated, depicts a Black policeman shooting a Black college student. The Tribune wrote that Boseman “gets up to his neck in the complexities of black-on-black violence and externally imposed self-loathing.” Echoes of those themes can be heard in Boseman’s present-day reading of the Black Panther story in which the hero and antihero are both Black. “What they don’t realize,” he told Time, “is that the greatest conflict you will ever face will be the conflict with yourself.”

Boseman’s big break didn’t come until he was in his mid-thirties — with guest-starring appearances on television shows like Lincoln Heights and Lie to Me under his belt — when he landed the lead role of Jackie Robinson in 42. He was a relative nobody playing opposite Harrison Ford, which prompted Robinson’s widow to ask of the young actor: “If we had made this movie when I wanted to make this movie, Sidney Poitier would have played your role. And then Denzel [Washington] was supposed to play it. And now we have you. Who are you?”

The 2013 film was a critical and box office success and led the following year to Boseman starring in Get on Up, another biopic, this time about funk-soul legend James Brown. As AAFCA president Robertson points out, it’s Boseman’s “lowkey-ness” that makes him the kind of actor like “Al Pacino, who can take on different types of personas.” And take it on he did: throwing himself into the part, following a rigorous practice schedule of dancing and singing and, he claims, doing splits 96 times in a single day of filming. Boseman earned the praise of his director: “Very soon he will be known around the world simply as Chadwick. I can already hear studio people saying, ‘We need to get a Chadwick!’ ”

Buzz started to build — could Boseman be up for a Golden Globe or even an Oscar? But those award nods didn’t pan out. “When it comes down to it,” Boseman told reporters in 2015, “I’d rather have an action figure than a Golden Globe.” He was talking, of course, about his recent casting as the Black Panther. And, after all, it was never about pleasing the audience.

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