What does it mean when a famous person dies?
I can’t recall who it was who died years ago when my friend Mohammed put up a post on his Blackberry Messenger declaring his grief. Someone else chided him for doing so, asking in a different choice of words that most Nigerian of questions, “Wetin concern you”?
I, again, do not remember how this got to me but I told Mohammed to tell his friend that public grief of the sort isn’t exactly the same as grieving a family member or lover, where one might crave privacy; grieving for a famous person is a conversation carried out in the same space that you discovered the person: in public.
You want that same place you encountered the deceased to be the same place you express your sadness. It is this symmetry that you chase, and if beauty really is a tale of symmetry, then there is probably no better time to chase beauty than in the wake of a death.
I learned of the death of Chadwick Boseman, the man who embodied the Black Panther on the big screen, from my sister, and immediately I sought out others like me. I was shocked at his death; who else was?
The answer, as everybody knows now, is everybody else. It seemed right. A star, perhaps the world’s last unproblematic star, had passed on, and everybody grieved. As someone has said, all of your faves are problematic. Except Chadwick Boseman.
His death seemed as unproblematic as he lived his life. He died in his home with his family. His wife surely is devastated and there can be no consolation even if cancer doesn’t quite take lives without warning. She got a warning; the rest of didn’t. But we didn’t deserve one.
That is not the same thing as saying we wouldn’t have loved one. I surely would have and for fans who knew his home, a few dramatic incidents might have ensued. It’s all for the best. There was a star who lived on his terms and has now passed on his own terms. Again, symmetry.
I recall seeing Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up and I have to see that film again if only to process how an actor so unproblematic could become a musician so problematic he would have been offering apologies every week in the age of social media.
The next time I saw him he was the Black Panther and, of course, that shot him to stardom. I had problems with the film and some problems with a famous writer’s take on the film. As I write these words, though, what I remember clearly was a comment from people who said Michael B. Jordan would have been better suited as the Black Panther. They were taken in by Jordan’s more in-your-face, more muscular Killmonger.
I forget what I thought of that view. But whatever I thought, I clearly see the idea behind the casting now. What Ryan Coogler’s film needed in its central role wasn’t the strutting superhero Marvel movies have created a need for; what the film needed was royalty first.
Because Black Panther played out more as a family drama, the film needed an actor that projected dignity far more than it needed an actor who immediately suggests a physical arrogance, either by musculature or by the ideals promoted heavily by superhero culture.
As it is, there are so few actors today who project not just dignity but kindness, empathy, and firmness, all qualities you expect from a king. One of the actors in that mould was Chadwick Boseman. It was especially gratifying to see that, from statements made by other famous people, he was that way in real life.
We have lost Chadwick now; we have lost royalty. But may his family be strong. And may the man rest in peace and power.