'Black Panther' Star Chadwick Boseman Recalls Experiences With Racism From Childhood and Today
By Brian Haas
Bjorn Iooss for MR PORTER.COM
Chadwick Boseman is set to become the first black superhero in the Marvel film universe -- and the gravity of that role is not lost on him.
From dealing with racism growing up in South Carolina to losing a close friend in a fatal shooting while he was studying at Howard to getting the call from Marvel to portray the Black Panther, Boseman talked of pain and progress in interviews with several media outlets on Thursday in advance of his new film.
It's hard to separate race from Black Panther, which tells the tale of King T’Challa, leader of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. And it's hard to separate race -- and racism -- from Boseman's journey to playing the superhero.
“It’s not hard to find in South Carolina. Going to high school, I’d see Confederate flags on trucks," he told MRPORTER.com when asked if he has personally experienced racism. "I know what it’s like to be a kid at an ice-cream shop when some little white kid calls you ‘n**ger,’ but your parents tell you to calm down because they know it could blow up. We even had trucks try to run us off the road.”
And he said that those experiences aren't just things of the past.
“Let me give you an example. When I was shooting Black Panther in Atlanta, I used to drive back on off days to go see my family in Anderson [South Carolina]. It’s about two hours. And I would see the Klan holding rallies in a Walmart car park," he said. "So it’s like we’re going forward and backward at the same time. People don’t want to experience change, they just want to wake up and it’s different. But this -- shooting Black Panther and then driving past the Klan -- that’s what change feels like.”
Boseman, 41, is no stranger to leading roles. Nor is it the first time he will be playing a racial barrier-breaker. He played Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in Major League history in the film 42. He played Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, in Marshall. And he played the "Godfather of Soul," James Brown, whose socially conscious funk music crossed racial barriers, in Get On Up.
While those roles garnered Boseman critical acclaim, they didn't exactly catapult him to stardom.
That's all likely to change with Black Panther, which is opening on Feb. 16 to considerable interest. But whether Black Panther moves beyond "movie" to "movement" is something Boseman isn't ready to speculate about.
“Yeah, I hope so. But I hesitate to jump on that ‘Oh, it’s a movement’ thing," he said in the interview. "Because it depends on how it opens. I mean, it’s got to happen first, right? People need to show up and not bootleg it.”
Still, he's not afraid to use his platform to at least begin some of those dialogues. When asked by Elle what he would say to President Donald Trump if he met him, he laughed.
"Oh, Jesus. First of all, 'Do I want to meet him?' is the question," he said. "It’s useless for me to say this, but what I want him to do is think about people. What does the everyday American have to deal with? That’s what’s criminal about what we’re seeing. They’re taking away people’s health care. People have fought wars over taxation without representation. That’s essentially what we’re experiencing."
Boseman marveled that he has come to play T'Challa, a character that he idolized as a young man. He was anonymously handed a copy of one of the comic books while filming Gods of Egypt. And he kept running into panther motifs -- right up until he literally took the call from Marvel to play the character.
“My grandmother would say that God is real, and it does feel that way," he told MRPORTER.com. "There are things you can’t explain away as coincidence. Certain things are meant for you to do.”