It's hard to make dignity interesting. Chadwick Boseman found a way.
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It's hard to make dignity interesting. Chadwick Boseman found a way.
Chadwick Boseman in Los Angeles, Nov. 18, 2018. Boseman, who found fame as the star of “Black Panther” and who also portrayed pathbreaking Black figures including Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, died on Aug. 28, 2020 after a battle with colon cancer. He was 43. Magdalena Wosinska/The New York Times.

by Wesley Morris

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The problem with dignity is that there’s not much an actor can do with it. Not when he’s playing Jackie Robinson or Thurgood Marshall, not when you’re the leader of a made-up African kingdom, like Wakanda.

For a performer, dignity can seem like an anchor or a void. What can he show us of a baseball legend or a titan of jurisprudence that they hadn’t previously revealed?

In playing dignity, Chadwick Boseman, who died Friday, at just 43, of colon cancer, often seemed tasked to perform its burden. But there was always more to him in these parts than heft. He pumped in plenty of its opposite: lightness. In “Marshall,” instead of bearing down on the man’s owlish brilliance, Boseman turned the concept of what’s actionable into physical action. He was light, quick, smooth, chic. He sprinkled the truth with herbs and spices.

Amazingly, between his work as Robinson and Marshall, Boseman also played the great American superstar James Brown in “Get On Up.” Had any actor spent more time in such enormous shoes in so brief a span? (The Jackie Robinson film, “42,” came out in 2013; “Marshall” was four years later.) No one in the movies comes to mind. Sidney Poitier maybe. But he went first and so had to make his own shoes.

I’ll confess to finding it odd that Boseman played these three roles so quickly. It seemed at first like a joke on the movies’ ongoing obsession with stories about exceptional Black Americans or like Hollywood was too lazy to imagine anyone else inhabiting the exceptions. The truth is that Boseman actually cornered a market with his inner elasticity and, at least for me, exploded the parameters of what biographical moviemaking ought to be. With him, “seems like” mattered more than “looks like.” It was daring, and he didn’t even seem aware of the risks.

What can an actor show us when he doesn’t even look like the people he’s playing? That always seemed peculiar, his resemblance to none of the three men. But Chadwick Boseman had these eyes. They weren’t Robinson’s, a young Marshall’s or Brown’s. In each case, Boseman’s eyes were too large (and his frame, while we’re at it, was too small). But, my, their sincerity and tenderness reached inside you. That’s what his eyes could do with entire personas: get to their point and go beyond it.

During this “great man” stretch, Boseman’s idea of the legends he embodied won out over verisimilitude. The movies themselves aren’t bold enough to let him go too deep or get too dark — “42” is more about how Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) handled the team Robinson integrated. Nonetheless, Boseman made each man sexy, contemplative, certain.

“Seems like” took him to some beguiling places in “Get On Up,” that James Brown movie from 2014. He got Brown’s gunshot kinetics and percussive way with a conversation, his allure and mercurial short fuse. An audience might have had trouble harmonizing Brown’s contradictions — the libertine and conservative urges, his tyranny, paranoia and generosity, that he loved women and hit them. Boseman turned the friction of Brown’s personality into fire. The movie’s unruliness, its kitchen-sink way with a life story, its divergence from reality all probably would have overwhelmed a regular actor. Boseman, it turns out, was far from a regular actor.

The movie came and went that summer. What everybody missed was not only one of the year’s best performances but a milestone for a tired genre. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix (who played Johnny Cash) and, eventually, Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) and Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland), Boseman didn’t attempt to sing. You’re hearing James Brown’s vocals. But Boseman obviates any editing tricks. The camera gets right up close to him as, say, he stands motionless — motionless for Brown, anyway — and belts “Try Me,” a cappella. Boseman was so fluent in the curl of Brown’s tongue and the aperture of his mouth as it sculpted and spat “I need you” and “I want you to stop my heart from crying” and “heh!” that the singer’s voice may as well have been the actor’s.

The impact of Boseman’s lip-syncing differs from Marion Cotillard’s in “La Vie en Rose” or Jamie Foxx’s in “Ray” because Boseman really does look all wrong for the part — clothes, for instance, that hugged late-career Brown hung from Boseman’s athletic body. Oral simulation forged his pathway to credibility, not hair or makeup. What his “Godfather of Soul” lacked in resemblance, he made up for in spiritual zest.

Boseman’s career didn’t take off until he was well into his 30s. So a heavy “what if” looms over his career, the bulk of which was spent, of course, in the Marvel universe, where he thrived as T’Challa, king of Wakanda, the country he defends as Black Panther. When T’Challa first appears, in the first “Captain America” sequel, there’s a smolder to Boseman that makes him the most compelling person in the movie for as long he’s around, which isn’t much, yet more than I would have expected. But Marvel always has a plan, and the plan for Boseman was a stand-alone “Black Panther” film. He was his trademark cocktail of pensive and cool. The crown didn’t weigh on him. He played the part like the movie star “Black Panther” would turn him into.

A wonderful aspect of Boseman’s fame was how little he seemed to mind having it wrapped up in that franchise. Whatever “Black Panther” means to millions of people also meant something to him. He walked red carpets in floor-length designer coats, embroidered suits, knightly capes and so many bright, lickable patterns that the clothes became their own candy shop. He did so, apparently — unimaginably — while also battling cancer. In public, he crossed his arms across his chest the way they do in Wakanda, as a salutation that doubles as a promise to endure.

In 2018, he hosted “Saturday Night Live” and, as T’Challa, hilariously vied for a win against Shanice and Rashad in one of the show’s “Black Jeopardy!” segments. His categories included Grown Ass; Girl, Bye; and White People.

At some point, Shanice picks the first category for $600 and gets the clue, “You send your smartass child here ’cause she thinks she grown.” T’Challa chimes in, speaking with Boseman’s lilting Wakandan pragmatism: “What is ‘to one of our free universities where she can apply her intelligence and perhaps one day become a great scientist.” His dignity is more than the game needs. It’s asking the show to want more for itself. The comedy arises from the tension between low expectation and high, between Kenan Thompson’s exasperation, as the host, and Boseman’s blithe rectitude, between regular folks and royalty.

The exciting mystery was always going to be where Boseman would take his classiness in addition to Wakanda. He’d completed a film version of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” for George C. Wolfe, with Viola Davis. And though he might have been hesitant to try yet another extraordinary American, he was good at it. Why stop at Thurgood Marshall? Boseman’s solemnity and round, serious, searching eyes better matched James Baldwin. That pairing might have been something — Baldwin’s middle age meeting Boseman’s, the actor’s dexterous way with dignity approaching the thinker’s never-ending demand that the country respect the dignity of Black Americans.

His loose resemblance to Baldwin is secondary to what Boseman might have done with Baldwin’s erudition and elocution. For Boseman was no impersonator. He was in his way a historian — of other people’s magnetism and volition. Excellence and leadership spoke to and sparked him. They had to. No one approximates this much greatness without a considerable reserve of greatness himself.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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