I knew I’d seen Chadwick Boseman in a number of fine films and that he’d excelled in them all. But this author points out the wonder of that talent and the extent of our loss.
The Lived-In Grace of Chadwick Boseman
By Richard Brody August 29, 2020
In an era that prizes and praises actors’ conspicuous exertion (like Joaquin Phoenix, in “Joker,” and Leonardo DiCaprio, in “The Revenant”), Chadwick Boseman never wrestled the bear, never turned acting into stunt work for the sheer self-congratulatory pride in effort. He also, at a time when technical skill is venerated, never flaunted his own formidable acting technique. Boseman, who died on Friday, at the age of forty-three, never won an Oscar—was never even nominated. True, he had only a handful of leading roles, but he won overwhelming and justified acclaim for each of them. Yet he didn’t sufficiently impress his award-granting peers in the industry, perhaps because his style of acting set him apart from—and in crucial ways, above—the customs, habits, and conventions of the profession.
Boseman’s talent had never been in doubt; what had largely gone unrecognized was his originality. His breakthrough came in that most accursed of genres, the bio-pic, in “42,” which was released in 2013, when he was thirty-six years old. There, alongside the enormous historical responsibility that the role of Jackie Robinson (the first Black player in major-league baseball) imposed, Boseman had a hard script to contend with. It’s a movie written and directed with 20/20 hindsight regarding progress in American race relations. Boseman’s solution to the dramatic and technical problem of conveying Robinson’s supremely controlled bearing and the passion that roiled beneath it was to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of bio-pic performances: he neither reinvents the role to fit his own art (as do some other notables who’ve won Oscars for performances in the genre) nor does he impersonate the character of Robinson with sheer virtuosity. Rather, Boseman incarnates Robinson, catches an element of physical bearing that comes not from imitation but identification, from a profound empathy that goes beneath the skin and seemingly takes on not merely the character’s actions and experiences but also the subconscious, the automatic aspect.
That sense of lived-in spontaneity born of imagination is both the source of Boseman’s profound art and the reason that he had not been hailed as other actors have been. His method puts his own bearing severely to the test, and that bearing is supremely graceful: he makes the extreme difficulty of embodying Robinson (and, then, James Brown, in “Get On Up”) look effortless, and makes his distinctive and unusual craft look like second nature rather than like the actorly modernism that it is. In “Marshall,” Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall (in a story of Marshall’s work as a civil-rights attorney, set decades before he became a Supreme Court Justice) with a similarly inhabited air—an expansive power that’s the opposite of haunted or theatrical. Boseman’s performance is grandly dialectical, but his way with the word conveys, above all, the intellectual power and the historical undercurrent that gives rise to the word; here, too, his virtuosity is subordinated into a physical presence that virtually bursts through the screen with a startling immediacy that nonetheless seems to be entirely that of Marshall.Video From The New YorkerA Couple’s Last Words to Each Other
Boseman was an extraordinarily graceful actor—perhaps the most graceful one of his generation. His ability to generate enormous power with the appearance of minimal strain is both an art and a mark of personality, of a devotion and a humility that Hollywood values even less for its authenticity, its sincerity. In the role of T’Challa, in “Black Panther,” Boseman dons the royal mantle with a serenity that reflects a clear and principled sense of purpose—and that again wears lightly the burden of responsibility that comes with it. The movie, for all its Marvelous artifice, both asserts the Black identity of superheroic characters and of American pop culture at large, while also joining American Blackness to the heritage of African culture. The movie, through the creative efforts of its director, Ryan Coogler (who wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole), takes on a responsibility far greater than that of any other film in the Marvel cycle, greater perhaps than any work of mass entertainment in recent years—and Boseman, at its center, carries that responsibility with an understated grandeur that, once more, conveys a sense of humility.
What’s more, Boseman, for all that he achieved, did so quickly but belatedly. He had only a handful of starring and major roles; though he died at forty-three, he was really only just getting started. He had only begun to work with the leading directors of the time; his art and his style, though fully formed, had only begun to reveal their immense, historic possibilities. Boseman’s role in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” as Stormin’ Norman, the troop commander who, while fighting in Vietnam, was also a virtual mentor in Black history and politics to the men serving under his command, is similarly imbued with the responsibility and the weight of history. The role, despite its brevity, is the fulcrum of the movie, the source of emotional energy and of ideas that propel the drama.
The casting in Lee’s film is apt: here, Boseman, while inhabiting the role fully, is also, in a way, emblematic of his own artistic passion for history, for properly redefining the cultural record to reflect the centrality of Black lives and achievements. This, too, is part of Boseman’s gracefulness and devotion—his performances suggest that the only thing that’s remarkable about such an effort is the distressing fact that it is, today, still necessary. It is, perhaps, this very sense of history, of responsibility, of implicit but intensely personal political commitment, that also inhibited the acclaim, while Boseman lived and worked, from his timid and stumbling Hollywood milieu.
Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”