This was supposed to be Chadwick Boseman’s night.
After rolling through most of awards season, Boseman was a favorite to win at Sunday's Academy Awards. He was supposed to win for the memorable career he had, for the signature roles we’ll never see, and for the “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” character that encompassed everything he did so well in one cocky, complicated cornet player.
The Oscars, which usually announces its top prize – best picture – last, even appeared to foretell a Boseman win by making the best-actor award the finale. (Fun fact: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has ended with best picture every year since 1948, aside from 1972, when Charlie Chaplin closed the night with an honorary award.) Why wouldn't the Academy Awards finish its show honoring all that the beloved performer did in his career before his death last August, too young at 43, after a long battle with colon cancer?
But no. Anthony Hopkins, who turned in an exceptional performance in "The Father," won. (And he wasn't there to accept, bringing an already strange ceremony to a clunker of an anticlimax.) Hopkins' performance was worthy of an Oscar, perhaps in any other year. Here's the thing: We're going to see that Hollywood legend again. The same can't be said of Boseman.
We didn’t have him for very long, though what Boseman did over the course of less than a decade was an amazing, singular achievement that the academy had a chance to celebrate but disappointingly whiffed. He embodied, and never imitated, a trio of Black icons: Boseman made us feel the hatred and racism faced by Jackie Robinson (2013’s “42”), the first Black player in Major League Baseball; he stirred up excitement singing and dancing as James Brown (2014’s “Get On Up”), the Godfather of Soul himself; and he embraced the civil rights crusade of young lawyer Thurgood Marshall (2017’s “Marshall”) before he became a Supreme Court justice.
Those roles put him on the map. And then Boseman became a Hollywood superhero, bringing African culture to the masses while also being a touchstone for the Black community. He appeared in four Marvel movies, most notably in best-picture nominee and global phenomenon “Black Panther.” With his nuanced and passionate portrayal of an African ruler and protector navigating personal turmoil amid extraordinary circumstances, Boseman captured hearts and minds around the world giving the “Wakanda forever!” salute.
He also just made everything better with his presence. Boseman brought needed depth to the football movie “Draft Day” playing a fiery NFL prospect. He pretty much made the cop thriller “21 Bridges” watchable singlehandedly. And in Spike Lee’s war film “Da 5 Bloods” last year, his Vietnam-era squad leader wasn’t onscreen that much yet remaineda charismatic, haunting presence throughout.
His other2020 role, though, proved to be a stunning highlight. Boseman's Mississippi-born session musician Levee was a fashionable, self-centered foil to Viola Davis’ force-of-nature title blues singer in the 1920s-set “Ma Rainey,” an adaptation of the August Wilson play. Levee wanted to play her songs his way, craft songs for his own band and tried to get in tight with white music producers to make it happen.
Levee is seen as a guy who ribs his fellow bandmates (and doesn’t enjoy when they get him back), but with one monologue, Boseman creates a truly complex man out of Levee as he dives into his own backstory of witnessing his mother's rape by white men as a child and his father’s mission of vengeance. It’s a searing, dynamic scene matched only by the film’s tragic finale – another scene that brings out the best in Boseman.
If all that wasn't Oscar-worthy enough, the South Carolina native was more than just a great actor. He demonstrated excellence onscreen and how to be a good, humble man offscreen with a dazzling smile while understanding and respecting the influence he wielded. Boseman told USA TODAY in 2016 that when he was cast in “Captain America: Civil War,” “the first thing I thought about” was little kids wanting to dress up as Black Panther – an idea that came true, in global fashion.
And Boseman’s commitment to his characters was off the charts. When visiting the Atlanta set of "Black Panther" three years ago, this reporter talked with King T’Challa: Boseman never broke his Wakandan accent, even when talking with a pesky inquisitive journalist. Oscar or no, that memory and his grace won't go away.
The fact that he was also dealing with cancer at that time, after being diagnosed in 2016, and through years of playing Black Panther and his other indelible characters is unbelievable except for the fact that we all watched him do it, to the highest degree. We won’t get to see his artistry again, but there is always his body of work – somehow missing an Oscar win – for generations to study and celebrate.
While it would have been a poignant moment, he didn't need an Academy Award to have an influence on an industry and culture that misses his presence. He'll always be in our hearts.
In other words, to borrow a phrase: Chadwick forever.