When I received an afternoon email on August 29 from one of my close friends informing me that that award-winning actor Chadwick Boseman had passed away, I was stunned and saddened.
No one outside of Boseman’s inner circle knew that he had been battling colon cancer for the past four years, which make his extraordinary performances in “Black Panther” and “Marshall,” a 2017 film on an early trial in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, even more remarkable.
I became a fan of Boseman’s after watching him portray Jackie Robinson in the 2013 biopic “42,” a film that I show in my Sports Icons class at The Ohio State University’s Lima campus. Boseman eloquently and passionately captured the grace and resilience of Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 when he stepped on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. One of the most dramatic scenes in “42” was when Robinson ran into the hallway of the Dodgers’ dugout and smashed his bat in anger and anguish for not being able to retaliate against the vile, racist taunts of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Robinson’s cries of agony in this scene, as he falls to the floor with his body shaken by the weight of Chapman’s bigoted heckling, depicted the immense pressure Robinson was under to desegregate the sport hailed as America’s favorite pastime. I attribute this moment of brilliant acting to Boseman’s rising stardom, as his next major role was bringing the life of James Brown, the legendary Godfather of Soul, to the big screen in “Get on Up.”
Boseman had a special gift for depicting black history in “reel time,” and “Marshall,” while not as heralded as his other biopics, was especially significant since many young people were introduced to Thurgood Marshall as a lawyer for the NAACP in the 1940s. Dying at age 43, Boseman leaves an incredible legacy in the arts that would take many twice as long to establish. His life was cut short, but his work inspired and gave hope to millions.
I went back and listened to Boseman’s 2018 commencement address at Howard University, the prestigious historically black institution that was his alma mater. Howard was celebrating its 150th anniversary that year and Boseman was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters. As he spoke to the graduating students, he gave them sound advice rooted in biblical wisdom. Discussing some of the hardships he faced early on as an actor struggling to find his way in the industry, Boseman said that “sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you.” He then quoted the New International Version of Jeremiah 29:11, which reads, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Boseman emphasized that God’s plans are derived from purpose, also telling the graduates that “your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill.” In reflecting on this profound statement, I thought about something that the late minister Myles Munroe often taught in his Bible study sessions. Munroe spoke about the gifts God deposits into us when we are born and how we carry them throughout our lives. Some people, unfortunately, never refine their gifts and talents, and they are blind to the purpose they are here to fulfill that Boseman accentuated.
I remember Munroe saying that “you owe me” if one was not walking in divine purpose. He described this as a great debt to society because no one else can carry out what God has specifically created you to do. Boseman used his talent to challenge stereotypical representations of black men in film, which he credits to propelling him to his destiny. Looking at his notable body of work being just seven years older than he was, I truly realize the importance of not wasting time.
Most of us are not on a universal stage the way Boseman was, but we each have something unique to contribute where we are placed. I encourage you to perfect your God-given gifts with the time you have been granted.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc