THE ISSUE

Chadwick Boseman, the star of the 2018 Marvel Cinematic Universe hit movie, “Black Panther,” died Friday at age 43 at his Los Angeles home. Unbeknownst to the public, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. As The Associated Press noted, Boseman portrayed several Black trailblazers on the big screen — “including color-line breaking baseball star Jackie Robinson, legendary singer James Brown and the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His family said he endured ‘countless surgeries and chemotherapy’ while portraying King T’Challa of Wakanda in the Oscar-nominated ‘Black Panther.’ ”

We don’t often write editorials about movie stars. But Boseman was a star apart — a groundbreaking Black superhero on the screen, and by all accounts a deeply decent man in real life, whose life and death offer lessons for us all.

Those who watched Boseman in movies knew he was a gifted actor, one with the inherent dignity to play Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and the principled king of a mythical African kingdom called Wakanda.

What we didn’t know was that as he filmed “Black Panther,” playing the part of a monarch forced to fight to the brink of death for his claim to the throne, he also was undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

At one point, he visited St. Jude Children’s Research Institute, where he visited children with cancer.

In a widely viewed 2018 interview with his fellow “Black Panther” castmates on SiriusXM, Boseman spoke of two little kids with terminal cancer with whom he communicated through the movie’s filming. “And what they said to me, and their parents said, they’re trying to hold on until this movie comes.”

He said he was both humbled by that and spurred to work even harder on the film. He reflected on why the movie meant so much to those kids and said, “Seeing how the world has taken this on, seeing how the movement and how it’s taken on a life of its own, I realize that they anticipated something great.”

Those two sick children, to whom “Black Panther” meant so much, didn’t live to see the movie. As he recalled their hopeful anticipation, Boseman cried.

Not stage tears. But tears that seemed to come from so deep inside him that he couldn’t speak for a few moments.

Boseman as a Black superhero, filling movie theaters, had an immense cultural impact, inspiring Black children to see themselves as future leaders — and white children to see their Black classmates as future leaders, too. 

But the image of Boseman, a cinematic superhero crying over the loss of two children he barely knew, offered its own lesson. That there’s no shame in grief, in public expressions of sorrow. And absolutely nothing weak about empathy.

On April 15, on what was supposed to be Jackie Robinson Day — which commemorates the day in 1947 when No. 42 on the Brooklyn Dodgers broke baseball’s color barrier — Boseman posted a video on Instagram saying that protective equipment worth $4.2 million was being donated, in Robinson’s honor, to workers in hospitals hard hit by COVID-19.

Dramatically thinner, Boseman was accused by some of using illicit drugs and slammed so completely on social media that he took down the video.

We now know he was in his final months on Earth.

A registered nurse wrote this on Twitter over the weekend: “I hope the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman opens people’s eyes to the reason why it’s so important to be kind to others. You never know what they may be going through, a little kindness and understanding goes a long way.”

This was a Black woman, calling for kindness and understanding — at a time, incidentally, when African Americans are unfairly blamed for societal turmoil as they seek justice.

Boseman addressed the struggle for equality and the impact of “Black Panther” when the movie’s cast won the top prize at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Awards: “To be young, gifted and Black, we all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured. ... We know what it’s like to be a tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above. And that is what we went to work with every day because we knew ... that we had something special that we wanted to give the world. That we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing. That we could create a world that exemplified a world that we wanted to see.”

The Howard University graduate said this when he delivered the 2018 commencement speech at that historically Black college: “Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it.”

He told of being fired from a lucrative soap opera role because he raised concerns about its stereotyping of Black men, and of being tagged as “difficult” afterward. “When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents ... a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny,” he said.

His destiny was to play African American icons — and so to become one himself.

He would die on the very day that Major League Baseball held its pandemic-delayed Jackie Robinson celebrations.

His death at just age 43 highlights the importance of getting screened for colon cancer.

No one enjoys a colonoscopy — or preparing for one — but the procedure detects polyps in the colon or rectum so those polyps can be removed before they become cancerous.

According to the American Cancer Society, people 45 and over should be screened regularly; people with a family history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps should be screened earlier. We don’t know if Boseman was in the latter category and it’s not our business to know. But please find out if you have such a history and speak to your physician.

Boseman somehow not only completed the filming of “Black Panther” while undergoing cancer treatment, but made numerous other films, too, before he died. He was exceptional — in so many ways — and so we shouldn’t expect other people with cancer to be superheroes. But we might learn from his death that cancer isn’t a battle that can be won if only a person tries hard enough. Clearly, Boseman didn’t lack for strength of will.

This, too, we can learn: to be kind, not judgmental, because we can’t know what burdens people carry.

“You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be,” the character Nakia tells T’Challa in “Black Panther.”

In real life — and online — we get to choose what kind of people we’re going to be. We will try to choose wisely.

What to read next