Chadwick Boseman’s death in August, at the age of 43, shocked friends and colleagues who made recent films with him as much as it did fans around the world who mourned the passing of the actor who in a relatively short time played Black Panther, James Brown, Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall.
His colleagues still shake their heads in disbelief at the craft of his performances in two Oscar season movies, delivered while he was in the final throes of his fight against cancer. “I celebrate the man,” says Denzel Washington, who produced Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the August Wilson play that has put Boseman in prime contention for a rare posthumous Oscar, like those trophies awarded to Peter Finch for Network and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight.
“The tragedy and the pain of death is visited on the living,” Washington continues. “So my prayers are for his wife, and his family. Chad is at peace. And Chad has left seven examples of his great talent and commitment to the work. He has left that with us. Chad had a concentrated dose of life and now he is gone. But his work will live on, forever.”
As well as Ma Rainey, Boseman’s ethereal supporting turn in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods suggests a second nomination is possible. And Lee marvels in retrospect at Boseman’s resilience in the face of the oppressive heat of the shoot in Vietnam and Thailand, and his willingness to shoot demanding scenes that required much physicality.
An especially challenging scene to shoot involved the Bloods’ helicopter being shot down, and the group running through the jungle trying to take out the enemy before they are gunned down. “I understood why Chad would not tell me,” says Lee of his star’s decision not to disclose his diagnosis. “Because of this particular scene: it was hot as hell, the guys had equipment and had to run. There was more than one take. Chad did not want any director to think, ‘I can’t push him as hard, because he’s sick.’ He did not want to be treated differently. He wanted me to tell him to run as fast as the rest of them.”
Says co-star Norm Lewis: “The truth is, we were trying to keep up with him.”
Lee sought Boseman because of the aura he knew he would bring with him. “He was already mythical,” the director explains, “So, when people see him in Da 5 Bloods, they’ve already seen him as Jackie Robinson, as James Brown, as Thurgood Marshall, and as Black Panther. The audience didn’t have to do a lot of work to believe who Stormin’ Norman is.”
Delroy Lindo, who shares a pivotal and touching scene late in the film with Boseman, felt similarly. “Chadwick came on set probably five or six weeks after we had all been in Thailand working,” he remembers. “And the very first scene that Chadwick and I did together—his very first day of work—was the scene at the end of the film, when Norm comes to visit Paul. And he was just ready. I was ready, he was ready.”
Boseman didn’t let his condition affect his experience off-set, either. When Lindo’s son, 17 at the time, visited the set, he joined them for dinner. “He was very, very gracious and open towards my son,” says Lindo. “He was just very, very generous—with his time, with his energy, and with himself. I will always remember and value that, in terms of who Chadwick Boseman was as a person.”
Lindo adds: “He spoke openly about the whole aspect of mega stardom. He didn’t refer to it as mega stardom—I’m saying that—and I just got the impression that what mattered to him was the work. And that also endeared me to him. He was probably one of the biggest movie stars on the planet after the success of Black Panther, but he was also an actor who was very, very serious about the work of acting. I really admired and really respected that about him.”
For Jonathan Majors, who played Lindo’s character’s son in the movie, working with Boseman was an education that proved valuable as his own star rises. After a standout turn in Lovecraft Country, Majors is soon to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe himself as Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Observing Boseman taught him to never wear star stature on your sleeve.
“Noble is the word that comes to mind,” says Majors. “There are the inner workings of how films are made. It is on the call sheet. As a young actor, that is the hierarchy of the game. You’re one, two, three, four, five, down to nine. Everybody has their place. Chadwick… he was Black Panther. He was the man. James Brown. Jackie Robinson. I never heard of anyone doing this before, but [on our movie], he took himself down on the call sheet. He was high up…”
“He was number one,” Lindo points out.
“And he took himself down to five,” adds Majors. “For me, as a young actor, watching him and working with him, to see him do that… for him, it was the story, first and foremost. Chad, in all his glory, stardom and power, was humble and aware and noble enough to say, this is how it should go. That was a huge lesson for me.”
As Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Boseman saved perhaps the best performance of his career for last. Levee is a horn player whose ambition is tempered by the bitter memories of racism. The character is at times seductive, charming, and burning with shame and rage. And while it was clear to them that he was losing weight, his co-star Viola Davis and the film’s director George C. Wolfe say that he showed no other signs of suffering from his diagnosis. Boseman brought it, every day.
“It was the experience of working with a true artist, which you only find a few times in your career,” Davis says. “That’s what it felt like to work with Chadwick. I always say that he was a character actor in a leading man’s body. He wasn’t interested in the last film making a billion dollars; he was interested in what he had in front of him right then and there, and making it as honest and as truthful as possible. He was not a vanity guy at all. And the reason I mention that, too, is that he could easily have been that vanity guy. But he wasn’t. He was the real deal; one of those people that comes along once in a lifetime.”
Washington directed and felt firsthand the power of the dialogue in Wilson’s Fences. In Ma Rainey, Washington stayed behind the scenes as producer but watched in admiration as Boseman and Wolfe choreographed the emotional monologues that distinguish Wilson’s plays. It takes a lot to impress Washington, but Boseman quickly got his respect.
“He and George co-created that process in rehearsal and I was privy to listen in sometimes but what you see is Chad’s talent and George’s talent, and August Wilson’s talent coming together,” Washington said. “This was one of August’s best plays, and so every day there was another great something going on. It was like, ‘okay, who’s up next?’ There were a lot of great monologues, and Chad had some great ones as does Viola and everyone. It was a friendly competition, well maybe I won’t call it a competition; it was a unit but we all have egos and we want to do it well, and there was pressure there because everyone was good. Viola was great, Chad was great, Michael Potts, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman were back there stealing scenes. For me, it was just fun to watch.”
Wolfe still marvels at the way Boseman handled the intensity of key scenes, concealing his own pain. “I think of every step of the journey on this film I spent with this incredibly intense, smart, dynamic and sweet guy,” Wolfe says. “We went through this two-week rehearsal period and the breakthroughs—like one of Levee’s big arias about what happened to his parents—and the emotions took him, and he just went there.”
Wolfe says Boseman was making plans, even then. “I had no sense there was anything wrong,” he recalls. “He sent me a script he wanted me to direct, and I sent him a script I’d written that I wanted him to be in. We talked about doing a play. Everything was about moving forward. The shock was the shock, but the full journey of working on that film was working with somebody who was so vibrant and strong.”
Boseman’s attention to detail bordered on obsessive, including an insistence he learn the fingering of the horn for the music scenes.
“He became obsessed with playing this instrument,” Wolfe recalled. “I remember there was a moment where we recorded one of the songs and he said to me, ‘I want the fingering to every single number.’ I wrote to Branford [Marsalis] and Branford said, ‘okay. He did it and Chadwick would sit there learning it. After we recorded one of the songs, and two days later, he came up to me and said, ‘George, listen to this.’ He played this really crude version of the song we had finished filming. It was no longer necessary for him to hold onto the fingering, but he had still obsessed on getting it right. That was the journey, his obsession, to get it right. To get at the truth.”
Boseman’s strength manifested literally when he was charged with breaking down a door in a moment of frustration for his character. “He kicked it in so hard the first time, the whole door almost literally fell apart,” says Wolfe. “I talked about him doing it less ferociously. We repaired the door, and he kicked it just as ferociously the second time. He would do that aria where he curses God and attacks Cutler with the knife, and he would go out to the steps just outside the set and collapse. I would walk toward him and say, ‘Are you ready to do it again?’ I would give him a note, and in 15 or 20 minutes, he came back, ready. He would give the same performance, just as emotionally raw, with the adjustment.”
In hindsight, Wolfe realized he has experienced a second poignant final collaboration with someone he didn’t know was dying. He had directed Nora Ephron’s play Lucky Guy, which premiered on Broadway not long after Ephron had died. “She was very sick at the time and she had come to my house three times a week,” says Wolfe. “I would give her notes and she would go away, and I found out that when she wasn’t there, she was on chemo. By the time I found out she was very ill, it was too late for me to say anything to her.”
It has caused him to reflect. “I’m just fascinated by this impulse that is inside these ferocious human beings who are driven to do their jobs,” says Wolfe, punctuating these three final words: Do. Their. Jobs. “And to do it with every single thing that they have.”
For many audiences, Boseman’s long association with Black Panther in the MCU makes it the role most indelibly linked with the late actor. Joe and Anthony Russo made four films in seven years with Boseman and watched him develop the character from his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War through his last in Avengers: Endgame.
When Boseman’s family announced his passing, the Russos say they were as stunned as anyone else. “There were moments, once or twice, when I remember noticing he was surprisingly thin,” says Anthony. “You thought maybe something was going on, but it wasn’t anything beyond that. And even though he was a warm, generous and very present person, and likeable to work with, his personal life did seem quiet and guarded. He had something so complicated going on that it created a bit of a shroud over his personal life. At the time, I looked it as, some people are private people, and that’s perfectly fine. I thought that was just how he was built, but in retrospect I think there was more behind it than that.”
Adds Joe: “Chadwick was an extremely intelligent person and he certainly appreciated the meaning of what [Black Panther] was on every level. He approached it with a lot of respect, he knew the responsibility that came along with it, but he was never intimidated by the enormity of it. He always stayed so focused on the craft and that led him through everything; a process that could have become overly complicated if you let it. He poured everything into his discovery and crafting of the character.”
Because he was honing that character in Captain America: Civil War and likely felt the weight of responsibility on the solo movie, Boseman held himself back from the camaraderie displayed by the other actors playing superheroes in that film.
“He had a very unique energy to him on set that was very different from the norm on the marvel movies we did,” Anthony Russo said. “Those films had large casts and the casts had largely worked with one another over multiple films and years. There was a strong camaraderie and sense of fun between takes while we were waiting. There are a lot of actors who are built that way; you call action and they’re in it, and you call cut and they’re out of it. Other actors like to sit in the character, and not turn it on and off. They build it differently and Chadwick was one of those actors. Chadwick was extremely focused, quiet. He’s a pleasant and friendly nice guy, always polite. But he would speak in the Wakandan accent throughout the entire production, even outside of takes. He’s that kind of an actor, using his instruments mind and body on such a deep level that he literally needs to stay there for the entire period of time he is playing the character. That takes an incredible strength to do that. One thing I reflect on is that he was able to do so much work while he was suffering from cancer, and you could really see he had a deep strength in him in the way he approached his craft and the way he built characters. It doesn’t surprise me that he was able to withstand so much with his illness, because he seems built that way. That was my takeaway in working with Chadwick, his remarkable sense of focus and that he was able to create his own space on a set that sometimes was not complimentary to that energy.”
Joe Russo said that he and his brother felt privileged to help Boseman find that character, along with Coogler, who was working with Boseman to craft what would become their history making outing together.
“A lot of that mythology came from Chadwick, the comics, and Ryan Coogler, who did a deep dive two years before he made Black Panther,” Russo said. “I remember going over to visit Ryan before he shot that film and him giving us a breakdown of the work he had been doing. Anthony and I were floored; we walked away thinking, my God, that movie is going to rock the world, because of the level of thought that was going into it. Chadwick really initiated that; it was his idea to use the accent he did. He did the research to figure out based on where in Africa Wakanda was located, what kind of accent they would have. The level of intensity he applied to his work was second to none. He was a very devout and thoughtful and committed actor. One of the profoundly tragic events of our professional careers was his passing. He did four movies with us over a seven year period and he never once expressed his illness to us, and never once expressed that he was not well enough to work. He betrayed nothing outside the norm. We were acutely aware of some weight issues he was having, but he explained those as stomach issues that he was dealing with. He never described the gravity of what he was going through. It teaches you a lot about integrity, about life and focus and discipline and courage. He was a great actor who was also a great human being. It’s unique to be that talented, that steadfast and potent as an individual. We were as stunned as everyone, especially because we had just done a movie with him and had done re-shoots recently. There was no clue that he was terminally ill, no word of that expressed to us.”
While it is speculation, Anthony Russo thinks he understands why Boseman kept his diagnosis private. At some point, Boseman knew he might not have long, and he wanted the roles to become his legacy – Levee, Stormin’ Norman, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall.
“I think he wanted the significance and historical event that was Black Panther—the Black-cast-led superhero film that was a global sensation—to be the story,” says Anthony. “We have tremendous respect for him for that reason and that being his motivation. Certainly, we can only guess at that, but knowing him the way we did, I think we can say unequivocally that is the reason he did not express his illness.”