"I love the fact that the world had this film at this particular time," says actor Chadwick Boseman as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter and I point out that Black Panther, the critically acclaimed blockbuster in which he plays the warrior king of the fictional African nation Wakanda, came out one year after Donald Trump's inauguration; five months after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, without objection by Trump; and just 18 days after the president described Haiti and the nations of Africa as "shithole countries." Boseman continues, "Films can be escapism, but I don't think this was escapism. I think this was aspirational. Some people may say, 'Well, that country doesn't exist, that's not real,' but we were pulling from all real things. We were pulling from the great empires; we were pulling from the hairstyles and the culture and the clothing; we were pulling from mixtures of politics that exist; and we were trying to create not a perfect world, but a leader and a country that was aspirational, that gets it right. And so the fact that the world could look at that and draw from it during this particular time? Only God can do that, only something more powerful and more knowing than ourselves can place it in this particular time."
Black Panther, which was co-written and directed by the 32-year-old phenom Ryan Coogler, was the 18th installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and, significantly, the first Marvel film to center on a black superhero and feature a predominantly black cast. Made for $200 million, it debuted in the U.S. on Jan. 29 and logged what was then the fifth-highest-grossing (and is now the sixth-highest-grossing) opening weekend in history, with a haul of $202 million — and then remained atop the box-office charts for the next four weekends. It now stands as 2018's highest-grossing movie domestically, with grosses totaling $700 million, and the year's second-highest-grossing movie worldwide, having taken in $1.3 billion (behind only another Marvel film, Avengers: Infinity War). And, with a 97% favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com, it is also one of the year’s 10 best-reviewed films.
Much of Black Panther's success is attributable to the commanding performance by Boseman as T’Challa, the king who suits up and becomes, when necessary, Black Panther. The 40-year-old actor first inhabited the part in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, having already established himself as a thesp to be reckoned with by playing African-American icons in two highly regarded biopics: Jackie Robinson in 2013's 42 and James Brown in 2014's Get on Up. (He would play a third, Thurgood Marshall, in 2017's Marshall.) But nothing could have prepared him for the massive challenges — or rewards, which could ultimately include recognition from the Academy — of Black Panther. As he puts it, "It was a different experience."
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 15:13], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Stephen Galloway, THR's executive editor of features, previewing the Venice and Telluride film festivals that are kicking off the awards season this week.
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Boseman was born in 1977 in Anderson, South Carolina, to a mother who worked as a nurse and a father who worked at a cotton mill and as an upholsterer on the side. His mom's expectation that he would read and report back on a book every week fostered in him a love for storytelling. His ability to write well, however, only really manifested itself during his junior year of high school, when a basketball teammate was shot and killed. "In order to deal with that," he recalls, "I just started writing, and realized, I guess in the midst of it, that I was writing a play." That play was performed several times locally, and Boseman was hooked. "I followed my passion," he says, to historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., which he likens to Wakanda — a place where black people "from all over the diaspora" convene and experience "an influx of culture." During his time there, one of his classmates was Ta-Nehisi Coates; one of his extracurricular jobs was at an African bookstore; and, in connection with a class, he took his first trip to Africa — Ghana, specifically. "The first time that you get off the plane and step on the ground in this place," he reflects, "there's something that feels liberating."
At Howard, Boseman was pursuing a BFA in directing — which, quite by accident, led him to acting. Directing students were required to take acting classes to help them understand how to work with actors, and one such class was taught by The Cosby Show star Phylicia Rashad, a Howard alum that took a special interest in Boseman and encouraged him to apply to a summer program at Oxford University. He auditioned and was accepted, but couldn't afford to go — until Rashad recruited a friend to pay for his tuition; Boseman only learned after his time abroad that his benefactor had been Denzel Washington. (Boseman told Washington the story on the red carpet at Black Panther's New York premiere — in response to which point a proud Washington cracked, "Oh, so you owe me money! That's why I'm here — I'm here to collect!")
Even after the Oxford program and his gradution from Howard, Boseman still planned to pursue a career in writing and directing, not acting, and moved to Brooklyn to do so. There, work wasn't always steady, but he refused to take any jobs that weren't directly related to storytelling. "It's easy to have backup plans," he explains. "This is a craft. It's something you have to practice; it's not something you can put down [for a while and then pick up again]. You have to stay in the mode of telling stories, and the more you stay in that mode, the more keen the muscle is." He adds, "You have to always be in that mode or the people that are in that mode are gonna be a step ahead of you." Years later, he observes, "I enjoyed doing what I did then on the same level as I enjoy what I'm doing now. When I did summer stock in Ithaca as a director, I enjoyed directing those plays just as much as I enjoyed doing Black Panther. I enjoyed touring with the Hip-Hop Theater Festival just as much as I enjoyed doing Marshall. I just wanted to be doing what I love to do."
In 2003, Boseman landed his first professional acting job on the ABC soap opera All My Children, which shot in New York — but shortly thereafter was fired after questioning executives about the character he was playing, which the actor felt perpetuated negative stereotypes of black men. "I left Howard with a 'manifesto' — I guess that's the best way to say it — of the type of work that I would want to do," he says. "And when I say that, I mean that literally — I literally had a professor who said, 'Write a manifesto of what you want to do when you leave.' And this didn't fit it." Boseman continued to act on other TV series, mostly in one-episode guest roles, and to write. The story of the officer-involved death of a Howard classmate inspired him to write another play, which in 2006 won Chicago's equivalent of the Tony Award, and prompted calls for him to come to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter. "I was somewhat receptive to that call," he says, "and in other ways not receptive because I didn't know what L.A. was." He quickly learned.
Boseman's fortunes as an actor began to take off after he was invited to audition for a part in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. While he didn't wind up in the film, he did meet face to face with the celebrated auteur, who, it turned out, was familiar with and impressed by Boseman's work on — of all things — the ABC Family TV series Lincoln Heights. Django's casting director, Vickie Thomas, who was also present for their meeting, was simultaneously casting Brian Helgeland's 42, the first major motion picture about baseball legend Robinson, and it was her recommendation of Boseman that started the process that led the then little-known actor to land the highly coveted, star-making part. While there were physical demands to playing a pro ballplayer, there were even greater spiritual demands to playing someone who encountered considerable racism en route to breaking a sport's color barrier. "I certainly was able to pull from things that I knew," says Boseman, who has spoken before of being called the N-word while growing up in the South. One of his most important takeaways from the shoot came from working alongside the major movie star who played Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford, and "watching how he dealt with certain things" — things that Boseman himself would have to deal with five years later when Black Panther catapulted him to A-list stardom.
In between those two projects came Tate Taylor's Get on Up, an unconventional biopic of James Brown. To play the part, Boseman would have to not only learn how to sing and dance like the Godfather of Soul in less than two months, but also figure out how to convincingly portray him at a wide range of ages throughout his life. "There were some days when I would be him when he was 16, 17, then I would be him in his 50s or 60s, and then I would be him in his 30s — I'm talkin' about in one day," he dishes, adding, "The challenge of it — it called me, and at a certain point I couldn't turn it down." The resulting performance earned him the best reviews of his career. And though he began to fear being "typecast" as the actor to turn to for biopics about black icons, he still couldn't resist Reginald Hudlin's offer to play a young Thurgood Marshall in Marshall three years later. "I can't even begin to tell you how many biopics have been sent to me," he chuckles, "so I definitely would say that it gave me pause."
It was in 2014, while promoting Get on Up in Zurich, that Boseman received the phone call that changed his life. Kevin Feige and others at Marvel cryptically presented him with a straight-up offer to play a character who everyone understood — but no one could yet verbally state — was Black Panther. "I don't feel like I questioned it," Boseman says of the opportunity, even though he knew it would increase his level of fame to the point of impeding his ability to lead even a semi-normal life, because he realized that no project could ever be more consistent with his Howard manifesto. "'That's the type of work that I want to do,'" he remembers thinking. "'If you can bring that to the screen, you can bring some of that experience that I had at the mecca (Howard) to the world in a way that has never been done.'"
Between Boseman's 2014 unveiling as Black Panther at a press conference at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre, while flanked by fellow Marvel stars Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, and the 2016 release of Captain America: Civil War, in which Boseman was seen as Black Panther for the first time, he had a lot of prep to do. He worked with a trainer, a strength and conditioning coach — and a dialect coach. The idea of the character having an African accent — Xhosa, specifically — was briefly a point of contention between him and Marvel. "They felt that it was maybe too much for an audience to take," Boseman acknowledges. "I felt the exact opposite — like, if I speak with a British accent, what's gonna happen when I go home?" He continues, "It felt to me like a deal-breaker," adding, "I was like, 'No, this is such an important factor that if we lose this right now, what else are we gonna throw away for the sake of making people feel comfortable?'" This time, unlike 15 years earlier with All My Children, Boseman spoke up for what was important to him — and got it.
As production on Black Panther got underway in Atlanta, with a cast and crew filled with more people of color than virtually any major motion picture before, Boseman was in a position not unlike the one in which Robinson had been decades earlier: The eyes of the world were on him and his movie, and if he or it failed to perform, Boseman and the movie would be letting down not just Marvel, but millions of lovers of Black Panther comics and people of color around the world who had never seen a black superhero at the center of a Marvel movie. "Ryan and I would always compete about whose career would be done if this didn't work," he volunteers with a laugh.
The film was greenlit when Barack Obama was in the White House, but Trump was elected during its preproduction. "I remember what that feeling was," Boseman says, and he makes it clear that that feeling did not improve as the new administration — and the production of Black Panther — progressed. But rather than despair, he took and still takes heart in the notion that Black Panther is an answer to the bigotry that has risen to the surface of American society in the time since. "This is medicine for that," he says, noting with a chuckle, "I've seen little white Black Panthers!" He says, "The fact that this [film] is healing, in some ways, the next generation — and the current generation? I'm honored to be a part of that. And so, in the face of Charlottesville, in the face of 'shithole countries,' I love the fact that people have that to draw from and can combat it and have something to be proud of if they cannot be proud of their president."