Chadwick Boseman’s legacy and what his death shows about medical racism and ableism

Rest in Power, Chadwick Boseman

Boseman's legacy will live on in the roles he embodied and continue to inspire future generations. Courtesy of @chadwickboseman via Instagram

By: Harvin Bhathal, Features Editor

In an interview with the Huffington Post in 2017, Chadwick Boseman was asked if he bulked up, slimmed down, and bulked up again having finished on Captain America: Civil War, Marshall, and then Black Panther. He nodded his head, looking visibly exhausted. The interviewer said, “You’ve been through the wringer.”

Boseman responded, “Oh you don’t even know [laughs]. You have no idea. One day I’ll live to tell the story.”

On August 28, 2020, Chadwick Boseman passed away from Stage IV colon cancer before he could tell his story. But a part of his story exists in the roles he played, his contribution to Black culture, and the lives he touched along the way.

From playing Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get on Up, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, T’Challa (Black Panther) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Stormin’ Norm in Da 5 Bloods, Boseman’s story lies in representation — of portraying and honouring Black historical figures, and in showing Black children today that they too can be heroes.

Boseman was something of a Renaissance man having been an American actor, director, playwright, teacher, and producer. His legacy is one that is being mourned worldwide, including in Vancouver.

Although his most notable contributions were made as an actor, he had a background in directing from his education at Howard University, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Directing. It can be surmised that this education allowed him to completely immerse himself into these roles he played, knowing how it would come across on the film screen and be processed by audiences. 

His identification with characters such as Robinson, Brown, Marshall, and Stormin’ Norm (fictional) not only brought life to their actions and experiences but their essence, what made them such luminaries in the first place.

From situating himself in 1940s/50s America as the first Black baseball player to play in Major League Baseball, embodying one of the greatest Black artists to live, bringing virtuosity to his role as a civil rights attorney, and tributing the lives of the forgotten heroes from the Vietnam War — what Boseman brought to each portrayal is understanding the centrality of Black lives in America. 

It’s why his role as Black Panther was so important.

Heroes represent the best of humanity through intelligence, strength, and compassion, and his role as Black Panther was just that. The Black Panther character has been in Marvel comics since 1966, and has been one of the few Black heroes that Black children have looked up to since. Those children from decades ago never thought that they would see that character come to life on the film screen, and Boseman was able to give them the feeling of being represented in superhero cinema for the first time.

Black children today also look up to Boseman’s Black Panther with admiration and as a source of inspiration. Billy Dee Williams, a Black actor and trailblazer, said on Twitter, “He taught an entire generation of children that no matter their background, to be the hero of their own story. He taught an entire generation of young white children that their hero’s [sic] don’t have to look like them.”

He did so staying true to himself and his character. When Marvel raised concerns about whether an African accent would be too much for American audiences, Boseman was adamant about keeping it.

“Colonialism in Africa would have it that, in order to be a ruler, his education comes from Europe,” said Boseman. “I wanted to be completely sure that we didn’t convey that idea, because that would be counter to everything that Wakanda is about. It’s supposed to be the most technologically advanced nation on the planet. If it’s supposed to not have been conquered — which means that advancement has happened without colonialism tainting it, poisoning the well of it, without stopping it or disrupting it — then there’s no way he would speak with a European accent.”

In retrospect, each role Boseman took on is especially important in light of the finite amount of time he had left. That Boseman’s final films are films with lasting impacts is a true testament to his dedication to embodying Black histories and Black futures. 

While many have praised Boseman, posthumously, for his bravery, his story cannot be discussed without mentioning the disparities in healthcare for Black men and women facing colon cancer. There is a lack of race-based data in Canada regarding colon cancer for Black people but it is the second most common cancer amongst Canadians. 1 in 14 men and 1 in 18 women will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime. 

In the United States, the rates of colon cancer among Black people are the highest of any racial group with incidence rates being 24% higher in Black men and 19% higher in Black women.

Boseman kept his cancer hidden from the public for four years which in today’s day and age, is almost impossible. It’s a testament to the people in his life, and the respect they have for him. But Boseman making the decision to keep his cancer hidden speaks to our culture of ableism.

Earlier this year, he made an IGTV video about Operation 42, an initiative aimed to help Black communities affected by COVID-19 through providing personal protective equipment (PPE). In the video, he discussed the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 in Black and Brown communities, and a $4.2 million donation from Thomas Tull, producer of 42

Instead of focusing on Boseman highlighting the inequities in access to health care, people focused on his appearance. They made obscene jokes about his weight loss, causing him to hide the video from his main feed, delete several photos, and turn off comments.

If his weight loss caused severe invasions of his privacy, imagine if the public, paparazzi, and media knew about his illness. If he had made it public that he had cancer, it’s likely that Hollywood executives wouldn’t have treated him the same. Illness is seen as a flaw and it makes people uncomfortable

Given that those with disabilities are more likely to face hiring and workplace discrimination, there’s an argument to be made disclosure would have impacted the roles Boseman received, and hindered his ability to be a public figure without having his health be a topic of public discussion. 

What Boseman did in these four years is nothing but admirable, and that is an understatement. However, his death has people making statements that perpetuate the belief that having an illness is no excuse for not trying to work hard. Comparing Boseman’s  story to that of all people with disabilities reinforces the reasons we can only assume for now that he kept having cancer hidden. 

People with disabilities shouldn’t have to suffer in silence to be considered strong. If Boseman was so affected by his illness that he couldn’t film anymore, it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have been strong. Illness comes in all shapes and forms, and each person who has an illness is as strong as the next. 

Instead of using Boseman’s death to perpetuate ableism, we can honour him by working towards a world where nobody needs to hide their illness for fear of being underestimated for it. 

Boseman was a hero for his work as an actor and a hero for the lives he touched along the way.

Rest in power Chadwick Boseman.