In years like 2020, films and television seem superfluous. Chadwick Boseman's tragic death reminds us why they aren't.
We all need to escape. Especially when life becomes challenging or stressful. But there is something beyond escapism that movies and television can offer, something that is easy to forget, ignore, overlook and take for granted. Not just among the viewers, but also among the myriad of filmmakers and craftsmen who work in the entertainment industry.
What is that thing
It connects to the story at its deepest level. We tell stories to show us the way. Metaphors that help reinforce the meaning of our world and its events. We use characters as a guiding light, not as a literal representation of things, but perhaps as a representation of the world as we wish. From us, as we wish. Or as we hope, maybe one day to be in our most beautiful moments …
This is where superheroes come from. But the fascination for the genre has also become a fascination for the dark. Can you turn it upside down and make it gritty and raw? Yes. It turns out that not only can you do this, but you can do it over and over … and over and over … and over and over …
But that's not what we're here for today. We're here to talk about what can make stories transcend their medium and time.
What is that thing
Well, Chadwick Boseman actually embodied it. His death, and beyond that, his life is a reminder of what can actually be done. It has nothing to do with cameras, choices, action, editing, or any of the basic building blocks that we investigate and consider in this area. It has to do with something deeper that is more easily overlooked. Stronger. Eternal.
In a word, you could call it representation. But that has become a sterile social and political term that ignores the magical and transformative effects it can have on something as simple as a two-hour movie.
When you read Black Panther director Ryan Coogler's phenomenal homage to Boseman, you immediately get an idea of how powerful Boseman was, not only for the world but also for creating that critical character. Your 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 understand that what they have done and what impact it has 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 is the beginning of a path to answer that question.
When I was very young, I came home upset because I was bullied at school about my Jewish origins. My father comforted me by telling me that Indiana Jones was played by a Jewish man (Harrison Ford is half Jewish). He added that the director of the Indiana Jones films (Steven Spielberg) was also Jewish.
Now he could have chosen many Jewish actors, stars, writers or directors. But there was a good reason to choose Indiana Jones at this point, whether my father knew or not. Indiana Jones was a hero in popular culture, in mainstream. I could look at this hero and say, "Oh, the thing I'm being teased for … that's in that person too. I'm not alone. I can still be heroic."
The idea of a hero is of central importance. Heroes are part of our earliest stories. Not all stories are about heroes, but rather about those who speak to us across cultures and ages. And in a very important way.
Enter Black Panther.
I can only fathom a small fraction of what it ultimately meant– –AT LAST– –for African American boys to look and see on mainstream culture-to the the first time– –a hero like the black panther. I can hardly imagine what it was like for black men to point at Boseman and the character he was playing and finally be able to say to their kids, "See, look?"
Parents around the world exchanged photos of their children in tribute to actor Chadwick Boseman. Many posed next to the action figures of the Marvel universe and welcomed the greeting "Wakanda Forever". https://t.co/hCD4j5QPK8 pic.twitter.com/ZjnubhpdvV
– ABC News (@ABC) August 31, 2020
My father and I had our choice. Not just by Jewish filmmakers and actors, but also by the heroes they play. It was an easy problem to solve. It had been impossible for black men for generations. Not to mention black women STILL difficult for them, as well as countless other poorly represented people of skin color and gender in mainstream culture.
Even if you go back and look at the groundbreaking nature of the original Star Trek, which showed people of color as collaborators and equals in a utopian society, the key heroes were white men (also played by Jewish actors going back to my earlier point of view.)
Again we had it easy. It's important to not only have stories from your culture, but examples from mainstream culture as well.
It has something to do with being a hero. A character capable of great feats of courage and leadership, with a strong moral compass … that is something that stories have provided people with since the beginning of time.
This is its power and effect on the next generation. #ChadwickForever pic.twitter.com/uzwaNOt8M0
– Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) August 30, 2020
Representing this way means no buddy. Not a bad guy. No conflict person or quota insertion. Not a strange relief. The hero. The one who worships. The one to admire and imitate. Lone Ranger with Tonto doesn't do the Native Americans much good in terms of representation.
There is enough space for stories depicting exemplary heroism for all types of people.
The power of this cannot be underestimated.
It was important that Black Panther was built for everyone. A film for people of all origins and ethnicities. My white son loves Black Panthers. The fact that he's black doesn't make him a niche hero any more than Superman, who is white, made him a niche hero. What is crucial, however, is that heroes of all kinds can live on an equal footing in the same room.
– SayNoToRacism (@Mojogayle) August 30, 2020
Then we can begin to change and identify with who we want. But for far too long there was only one species to identify with.
There is an argument that Superman is a "golem" himself. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants who escaped ethnic violence. They were victims of anti-Semitism, and the theory is that they built a hero to protect those who were persecuted and couldn't protect themselves.
The importance of creating such a figure goes beyond adding text and ink to a page. It goes into the person who has to embody it.
Enter CHADWICK BOSEMAN.
The man or woman who plays the hero in this case takes on a particularly heavy burden. It's almost unbelievable that Boseman did all of this while battling a life-threatening illness. It's proof of his strength; his commitment to something lasting and important. And it goes way beyond what a movie or TV show can normally do.
Boseman's career wasn't just limited to playing the Black Panther. Among other things, he played Jackie Robinson. A major highlight of this particular telling of Robinson's story was the emphasis on how Robinson had to be better and stronger than everyone around him in order to exemplify the ideal and survive the onslaught of hatred. He had to rely on an endless source of inner strength.
Boseman apparently had the same endless well.
He didn't stop just playing the on-screen character, he stayed in touch with fans, visited the terminally ill and kept the appearance of being in good health.
This is storytelling and storytelling at its best, about the simple "Hey, was the movie good?"
Sure, the film was good. Boseman was good. But Boseman and the film went way beyond good. You were good for the world. A bowl of broccoli masquerading as a plate of french fries. Things that are so healthy shouldn't be easy to digest and fun.
Boseman's Black Panther and career were an example of no-narration. He embodied the ideals, he delivered the goods and he did not preach them. The message went to all of us, and the messenger carried that weight on his shoulders as if it were 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 step into a child's mind. Not in an immature sense, but to try to grasp the world from their perspective. One where the line between the hero and the actor who plays the hero becomes blurred. One where finding heroes who look like you or who you are is important. Or step into a parent's mind. Knowing that real people have flaws but mythological heroes do not, and you need them to illustrate correct behavior and action and to demonstrate what the human mind is capable of.
Actually wait. Perhaps we don't need to get into a child's mind because, in fact, Chadwick Boseman was in every way the immortal hero he played on screen.