I didn’t know Chadwick Boseman, although I truly wish I had. I did know some of the pain he lived in. That being said, I can’t possibly imagine what he went through, or what it was like to live his life. I can’t even begin to fathom how hard this is for his family, and I wouldn’t ever presume to put words in their mouths. All opinions expressed in this article stem from my own personal experience with disease and chronic illness, and from watching someone close to me and my family die from cancer.
I don’t always like to talk about this. It’s not easy to deliberately relive some of the darkest corners of your own life. Still, if anyone deserves it, it’s King T’Challa. And Jackie Robinson. And James Brown. Separately, they’re all heroes of mine. Together, as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman? Nothing short of legendary. The fact that one human being could successfully convey such different, powerful, beloved Black icons still blows my mind.
The very first time King T’Challa commanded our screen in Black Panther, we felt a sense of presence. Of nobility. Empathy. Intelligence. We believed that this man was worthy of a crown and worthy of his powers. And we watched with long-overdue glee as the juggernaut known as Black Panther forced other studio executives to finally realize that movies fronted by people of color can be successful. More than successful, even. Transformative.
Knowing that Chadwick embodied what it means to be a true superhero while privately carrying one of the hardest burdens any human can endure just deepened the respect I already had for him. But — and this is the important part — it did not overwrite the person I perceived him to be before.
When you picture a movie character with cancer, do you see a man like Chadwick Boseman, standing strong and proud and more than? Or do you see someone bald, frail, and weak, with an IV in their arm? A person who isn’t a person anymore because they’ve been swallowed by their label.
I don’t like being a cynic, but I’m guessing you automatically went to Door #2. And it’s not that this door is wrong, per se. Intense, unyielding agony, aggressive treatment, lingering family conversations, welcome denial, creeping heartbreak … they’re all part of living with cancer. As Chadwick’s agent Michael Green can attest, he personally witnessed that Chadwick was “‘really in hard-core pain’ while filming…Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
So yes, this aspect is real. Door #2, the one that represents the ugly underbelly of a disease like cancer, is unavoidable. However, it is not the only door we can walk through. There’s still Door #1, just waiting for us to open it. And that is where Hollywood has been doing us dirty.
Characters with mental health conditions are caricatures, villains or punch lines. People with physical impairments are portrayed as giving in to despair until their so-noble savior comes swooping in — that, or they magically make a full recovery. Those who are dying are somehow doing so with minimal visible damage. Absolutely pristine in their glamorous fading as they wrenchingly cling to the person who vows to love them no matter what.
Don’t worry though, the always attractive doctors are just waiting in the wings to help these tragic, romantic figures. They are absolutely, passionately desperate to cure you, dammit! Whenever they’re not sleeping with each other in broom closets, that is. Or, they’re charmingly grumping at you as they work day and night to Sherlock Holmes the case of what’s possibly wrong with you. Refusing to rest even a wink until they can finally, brilliantly name your internal enemy and vanquish it by the end of the episode.
Characters with a disability or a disease are just a punch card to wave in the face of the Academy when an actor decides it’s time for their Oscar. We even openly acknowledge this, winking at it in beloved meta satires like Tropic Thunder. All of us are encouraged to laugh along as our favorite actors say things like “Man, everyone knows you never go full ret*rd,” and then, we moved on to the next hilarious, off-color joke. And forget about the dead-on skewering of Hollywood self-aggrandizement that we just witnessed. We chuckled, and smiled, and moved on with our lives, happy little lemmings.
Hollywood’s wide-eyed gentrification of human suffering doesn’t just linger on our screens. It influences the way we view others. Changing these perceptions, working as a society to see this instead of this when we say the word “cancer” would be a fitting tribute to this man who inspired so many.
In my perfect world, the loss of someone like Chadwick Boseman sparks this change in perception. Empower us to cut away the fat and get to the heart of how the world is trained to see us: as a condition first, and a person second. And finally cause us to collectively decide that order is crap and long-overdue to be reversed.
For those of us who live with an illness, those of us who have mental health conditions, or disabilities — health informs every single aspect of our life. But it does not define us.
It didn’t define this man, this King.
So let’s remember Chadwick Boseman for more than the cancer that ultimately claimed his life. Let’s remember him for the love he gave, the strength he showed, the generosity of spirit he selflessly displayed, the talent and charisma he shared, and the courage he quietly embraced.
Let’s remember him for the countless young Black girls and boys he inspired. For the parents of those children who, because of Chadwick Boseman, were able to say things like, “I was proud that my kid saw someone who had his skin tone be a king and stand up for others.” And Hollywood, the next time you create a character with cancer, or any other type of health condition, remember to open Door #1.
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