On Saturday, the world of entertainment lost an inimitable personality in the form of Chadwick Boseman, most famous for his role as King T'Challa in the ground-breaking 2018 film Black Panther. Boseman was just 43 when he died from colon cancer. His death sparked an outpouring of grief around the world – a testament not just to his popularity and celebrity status but also to the circumstances of his passing and the extraordinary times in which we live.
There is no such thing as a timely death, but the fact that Boseman departed in the prime of his life came as a shock to many. Few outside of his most intimate circle had known about his diagnosis with cancer until the day it claimed his life. That he had kept his health condition so private speaks volumes about his humility and the respect those around him gave him, particularly in an era in which those of celebrity status are under unrelenting pressure to do the opposite. It is a difficult thing to live through one's twilight years knowing that that is the case, but Boseman did so with quiet dignity and grace.
The post issued through Boseman's Twitter account announcing his death and memorialising him was the most "liked" tweet in the social media platform's 14-year history. It is an irony that this post-mortem shot brought a greater burst of attention than any tweet Boseman made while alive, but it is nonetheless an apt reminder of the reach and cultural impact of his work. As many of his would-be fans will have realised this week, you don't know what you've got until it's gone.
Boseman is not the only celebrity, or even the only film personality, to have died this year. Indian actors Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan, and English thespian Ben Cross, are among those who lost the battle to cancer as well. They left behind an extensive body of work and etched their names in history. Boseman's seismic impact stands out, however, because it shook so many largely through just one role.
Boseman portrayed great real-life figures, including baseball player Jackie Robinson and musician James Brown, in previous works. But his character in Black Panther – that of a fictional black king ruling a fictional African kingdom named Wakanda, which represents the best a nation could hope for – resonates deeply in the present moment of global inequality and race consciousness. It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that the film really captures the zeitgeist. The first blockbuster of such magnitude about a black superhero, it cuts through the depressive nature of such heavy topics and speaks to the aspirations on the other side.
It also reminds us by way of counterfactual that we do not yet live in a post-racial world.
The year 2020 has seen people, irrespective of race, come together and mourn the deaths of other black figures, such as basketball player Kobe Bryant, and politician and civil rights activist John Lewis. But 2020 also witnessed the killing of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of a white American policeman. There have been countless incidents of police brutality against people of colour around the world before Floyd's murder and – tragically – there likely will be more to come.
The fact that these incidents have led to such wide anguish, for people from all walks of life, ought to give us some hope – and the impetus to work even harder in stamping out racial prejudice from our hearts, minds and societies.
Hopefully, Boseman’s characters – in real life and in reel life – will serve to appeal to and inspire the better angels of our nature in the years to come.