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'Overwhelming Crying': Why Chadwick Boseman's Death Hits So Hard Right Now

Chadwick Boseman poses at the premiere of "Black Panther" in Los Angeles on January 29, 2018
REUTERS | Mario Anzuoni
Chadwick Boseman poses at the premiere of "Black Panther" in Los Angeles on January 29, 2018

This weekend, people across the globe mourned the loss of Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman. That includes WBUR's arts and culture fellow Christian Burno. 

She tweeted that, "Black Panther was beyond the scope of anything we could’ve imagined. What an important movie in general, but especially to Black folks."

TPR's Jerry Clayton talked with Burno about Boseman, who died of colon cancer after battling it for four years and what he means to the Black community and the artistic world. That weight, Burno said, is especially heavy as the U.S. continues to reckon withracial injustice. On top of that, people are spending more time on social media than ever while stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Public Radio: Chadwick Boseman's (Twitter) account tweeted a tribute to honor his life and announce his death. And apparently that is now the most liked tweet in history, according to Twitter. Why do you think there has been such an outpouring of support for him, specifically online? 

Christian Burno is an arts and culture fellow at WBUR in Boston.
Credit WBUR
Christian Burno is an arts and culture fellow at WBUR in Boston.

Christian Burno: Oh, first things first. I think that people were very surprised by the announcement because most people had no idea that he was going through what he was going through for the past four years and continuing to work.

And then secondly, he was one of our biggest stars in this generation because of movies like Black Panther and all of the biopics he did before (and) the Spike Lee movie. It seems like he was just on a train that just kept going, like his career was just getting started. It hadn't even reached its peak, even though he had played one of the biggest superheroes we've had on screen. 

TPR: You shared a memory from The Tonight Show where Boseman came in and surprised the fans. And one mother said that her son's childhood had been defined by Barack Obama and Black Panther. Can you explain the gravity of that for the arts world? 

CB: Wow, well, I saw a video with the mother and the son specifically. You can tell that she was really touched by his contribution to her young Black son's life. And he has not known a world without President Barack Obama or Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther.

That holds a lot of weight because for people like me, who is somewhat older and Black, and for other older Black folks, we have known a world without it. We didn't think that was going to be possible, or we couldn't have even imagined that we would have a Black president and a Black superhero. And who knows which one was a bigger deal, right, at this point? (laughs)

It really holds a lot of weight to call out those two men because, before a couple of years ago, that was unheard of. That is a very new part of American history and pop culture history. It’s a lot of weight to the son when he saw Chadwick. He completely froze and freaked out. He couldn't even believe what he was seeing. He was seeing his Black superhero in real life, in real time, right in front of his face.

TPR: You said that your dad, and the visual is got to be something else, you said your dad wore a suit to the movie theater to watch Black Panther. Can you describe the suit? 

CB: Yes. It was a three piece suit. He had a bow tie. Just plain, kind of black, with a nice button down shirt. And my step mom, I didn't put this in the tweet, but my stepmom was in her Congolese dress/garb that she would wear to special occasions in her African community. They went to the movies fully decked-out. 

I was at home. They told me to babysit my little sister, and I knew that they were going to the movies. They came out of their room completely dressed up, and the visual was unbelievable. It put such a smile on my face.

My dad is a huge, huge superhero fan. He loves comic books. He loved any kind of sci-fi movies, fantasy movies. So this is a big deal to him. He had never done that before. They got all dressed up like they were going to an awards ceremony or something, so it was fantastic.

TPR: That movie Black Panther was such a celebration for the Black community. Do you remember how you personally felt the first time you watched it? 

CB: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I went with a group of friends the second night it was open. And the group of friends I went with, they went to see every Marvel movie. I did not go see those movies usually, but I knew something was special. I was like, I have to go see this with y'all. And they felt that it was a big deal because I was seeing this Marvel movie, and they knew the gravity of that for me. 

I was in the theater and the scene where there's an overview before the first battle with all of the different tribes and all of their different outfits, where the waterfall was, it took my breath away. It really did. I it was something I'd never seen before like that. So many beautiful Black people of all different shades just being celebrated and bowing down to the Black Panther, to this king played by Chadwick Boseman.

And then the aftermath of that was it went on to do well in the box office, which came as no surprise to me because it was a Marvel movie. So, it was going to do well anyway.

But it reached a whole new audiences, people like me who were not usually interested in superhero movies went to go see that movie — and went to go see it multiple times — because we wanted to support it and show people who make movies that movies with full Black casts can and should be made. Which will hopefully lead to movies with a cast of other people of color being made. People will go to the box office. It was a big deal. We're going to continue to see that people were really dedicated to going to that movie and the politics involved in that movie. It was an emotional experience, to say the least. I was pretty overwhelmed when I was when I saw that movie.

TPR: Have you spoken to your dad about Boseman's death?

CB: The night that we got the news about Chadwick Boseman's death, I did text him because my dad's not on social media. And he was surprised. I think my dad definitely assumed that Chadwick was, I mean, he was young. He was only 43, but he assumed he was a lot younger.

The last time I was with my dad earlier this summer, we actually watched The Five Bloods, the Spike Lee movie on Netflix that Chadwick was in. That was the last thing me and my father watched together back at my childhood home. You know, we didn't talk very much, but he was definitely surprised about it because like the rest of us, just we didn't see it coming. 

TPR: Now, with all these calls across the country to address racism in law enforcement and several other areas, do you feel that Boseman’s death maybe hit harder because of the timing? 

CB: Yes, I do. I do feel like his death hit harder because of the timing.

Right now it seems like a lot of people, like the people who are dying, it just seems like it's overwhelming with everything that's happening, culturally speaking. And his death — in particular because he was so young and we were so surprised by it — it definitely hits a little bit harder. And because he played at such specific characters, Black Panther and real-life superheroes: Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, Jackie Robinson. He really dedicated his life to making sure that Black people were depicted on screen to make the world a more equitable place. He used his talent to do that and Black people saw that. And it seemed really authentic. And he always spoke about it in interviews.

It did hit really hard because he was someone who was committed to Black people and was in service to us through his work. And it came as a shock during this time when we have a lot of time to kind of sit at home. And we are on social media, probably a lot more these days because we are at home.

In the overwhelming… the overwhelming crying that we all did — I mean — it was nothing like I had seen before. It really took a hit at a very specific time. And we're all paying attention to what's going on regarding race in this country right now. So for a Black man to work so, so well with Black stories, it really took a hit on us.

TPR: As you mentioned, it took everyone by surprise when he died because not many people knew (he had cancer). He didn't say anything about it. How do you feel that celebrities should handle this? Should they be more open about their situations? 

CB: I feel that celebrities are entitled to their privacy. He seemed to make it really clear that he was going to be private. A lot of his interviews and lot of his speeches revolved around his work and around the improvement of Black people and Black people in the arts. 

So, we knew what he wanted us to know. I think that I can only assume that the reason he was private was because this was obviously such a big deal. And sometimes things like that can define an artist and their work. And we would always be looking at them through that lens.

I think a lot of people are seeing that on Twitter and on social media, that we should treat people with kindness regardless of what we think is going on in their lives. There was some incident with him a few months ago when people were noticing that he was a little bit thinner. And now we can assume why that is, because he was sick, and some people were not kind. And we assume that actors, a lot of the time, lose weight or gain weight for roles. But now, knowing what we know, he kept it private. And I don't see anything wrong with that.

That is an extremely personal and trying thing to go through. Anyone who has had cancer or knows people who have had cancer know that you just kept working and kept giving us all of this great work. Specifically, I mean, he's only been relevant maybe to the mainstream for the past maybe six or seven years and gave us all of this great work for the past four years. I commend him and his circle for keeping a tight lid on that so he can continue working in peace.

TPR: Christian Burno is an arts and culture fellow at WBUR in Boston. Thanks for joining us, Christian.

CB: Thank you for having me. 

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