How Chadwick Boseman Embodies Black Male Dignity | Modern Society of USA

How Chadwick Boseman Embodies Black Male Dignity

How Chadwick Boseman Embodies Black Male Dignity

LOS ANGELES — Here’s an underrated perk of being Chadwick Boseman. One day, you’re out on a date at a jazz concert with your lady. It’s at one of those pastoral Californian sites: summertime, dragonflies. The sun is setting, pink and orange and spectacular, rivaled in charm only by the swell of the music, which is as shimmering and soulful as the surface of a lake.

It’s a near perfect moment. Perfect, that is, except for the view. A couple of yards ahead, partly obstructing your sightline, you notice a man with far-too-low jeans and AWOL underwear. A man whose fleshy hind-cleavage is putting on an impromptu show of its own.

If you were anyone else, you might crack a joke (ahem), avert your gaze and hope for the best. A funny footnote on an otherwise scrapbook evening.

But you’re Chadwick Boseman. One of the most bankable actors of your generation. Conjurer of heroic icons real and imagined, a ludicrous personal pantheon that so far includes Jackie Robinson (“42,” 2013), James Brown (“Get On Up,” 2014), Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall,” 2017) and, His Majesty of Wakanda himself, Black Panther.

“That’s a gift that the characters give you,” he said. “A dimension of yourself that you never had before.”

Most people would recognize any dimension of Boseman now. After years of surfing the biopic industrial complex as one national idol after another, his role as Black Panther in the “Avengers” films and this year’s eponymous blockbuster, the ninth-highest-grossing movie of all time, has established him as the rare breed of actor with both widely recognized chops and old-school star power — the kind any producer in post-Netflix Hollywood would trade a good kidney to clone in a lab.

Next up are starring roles in the New York police action drama “17 Bridges” (of which he is also a producer), the international thriller “Expatriate” (he’s producing and co-writing that one) and, barring an alien-invasion-level catastrophe, a wildly anticipated “Black Panther” sequel.

Remarkably, Boseman has come this far despite a relatively late start (he led a studio film for the first time at 35) and while remaining noticeably untouched by the tabloid drama, or whiff of overexposure, that can engulf even seasoned celebrities. In a pop taxonomy of black male nobility, he is cut squarely from the mold of Barack Obama — generally cool-blooded, affable, devoted to unglamorous fundamentals — a figure whom he is doubtlessly on a shortlist to portray in an inevitable epic.

Boseman told me his method of humanizing superhumans begins with searching their pasts. He’s looking for gestational wounds, personal failures, private fears — fissures where the molten ore of experience might harden into steel.

For the role of T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, that meant conceiving of a childhood squeezed by the weight of an ancient unbroken dynasty. When it came to becoming Jackie Robinson, he focused on formative years as a Negro League firebrand that crystallized the baseball pioneer’s polished exterior. James Brown: a meditation on irrepressible self-confidence, long starved by years of deprivation and insult in Jim Crow South Carolina.

“You have to hold it all in your mind, scene by scene,” Boseman said, a scraped plate of brussels sprouts with something called yuzu and celery-seed crema before him. He was dressed like an athlete turned agitator: LeBron James sneakers, black jeans, sleeveless black hoodie imprinted with the face of one hero he’d still love to play: Muhammad Ali.

“You’re a strong black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great,” he continued. “So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?”

BOSEMAN, 41, WAS BORN AND RAISED in the manufacturing hub of Anderson, S.C., the youngest of three boys. His mother, Carolyn, had a job as a nurse and the unflappable temperament to match. (“If I had to put anyone on the free throw line, it’s her.”) His father, Leroy, worked for an agricultural conglomerate and had a side business as an upholsterer. “I saw him work a lot of third shifts, a lot of night shifts,” Boseman said. “Whenever I work a particularly hard week, I think of him.”

His closest role models were his two brothers: Derrick, the eldest, now a preacher in Tennessee; and Kevin in the middle, a dancer who has performed with the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey troupes and toured with the stage adaptation of “The Lion King.”

Both brothers, each five years apart from the next, were allies and rivals (“I always wanted to dress better than my middle brother, and I wanted to beat the older one in sports”), but it was Kevin who foreshadowed Chadwick’s life in the arts.

In Anderson in the 1980s, Boseman said, there was little context for a boy who dreamed of becoming a dancer, let alone a black one. “It was like, ‘What is that?’” he said of his parents’ initial reaction to his brother’s chosen field. (A spokesman for the actor declined to make Kevin available for an interview.) “It wasn’t something that my family understood.”

Lupita Nyong’o, Boseman’s co-star and love interest in “Black Panther,” described his career choices as those of a socially conscious history buff. She recalled a working session with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, and Boseman that he turned into a mini lecture on the ancient Egyptian iconography and spiritual customs that had informed the original comic book.

“He’s very keen to put human experiences in historical context,” she said. “Even with a world that was make-believe, he wanted to connect it to the world that we know and could try to understand.”

One wonders if, as a result of his travels in the shoes of moral giants, Boseman has evolved an occupational shorthand — a secret posture, gaze or pattern of speech — that can invest any character with ineffable dignity.

Asked the question at the restaurant, he seemed to turn it over in his mind, as if he wanted to give it a fair shake.

“They can put the clothes on you,” he allowed, finally, after a long pause. A wry smile fanned across his face — both rows of teeth, steady eye contact. “But then you’ve gotta wear ’em.”

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