Maybe Chadwick Boseman just has a knack for playing legends.
Ten years into his acting career, after guest roles in television shows such as ER, CSI: NY and Lie to Me, Boseman burst upon the national scene by playing baseball immortal Jackie Robinson in the 2013 biopic 42. Robinson, of course, is the man who shattered baseball’s so-called “color barrier” by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947, becoming the first African-American to play in the major league’s modern era.
I loved 42, as a baseball fan and as a movie aficionado. I loved the way it transported the audience to long-lost ballparks such as Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Brooklyn’s classic Ebbets Field. I was fascinated by the way the film brought us back to a time in American history so long ago—and yet, not so long ago at all. But mostly, I was mesmerized by Boseman’s performance—one that so perfectly captured Robinson’s talent, his determination, his righteous rage, and ultimately, his dignity. I love Jackie more for having had Boseman help me get to know him.
Now, after a turn as James Brown (no less a legend in his own field) in 2014’s Get on Up, Boseman, along with the entire cast and crew of Black Panther, rules movie houses worldwide in the first solo outing for the King of Wakanda. We all read the buzz leading up to the film’s release (and were overjoyed to see that the buzz was justified). We’ve heard the multitude of stories about how the African-American community has embraced the movie and its incredible vision. And we’ve seen the staggering box-office numbers Black Panther has racked up (if it had made only half of its $235 million domestic opening weekend haul, it would still have been considered a massive hit).
Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers was more than a moment for baseball, it was a singular moment in the struggle for civil rights in America—and it took place years before Rosa Parks or Dr. King. Robinson was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word, taking fastballs under his chin from racist opponents before multitudes of protesters began marching in support of their civil rights.
And now, I can help but think—and hope—that Black Panther may be, in its own way, a Jackie Robinson-style moment not just for superhero films, but for mainstream movies as a whole. Watching Black Panther the weekend it opened, I couldn’t help but marvel at what a wonder it was to see a story told through a cultural perspective different from what we’ve been handed for—what? All of our lives?
Jackie Robinson brought with him to the major leagues a different style of baseball: more daring, more aggressive, a style that saw him stealing home when the modus operandi of the time was to get a couple of guys on base and wait for someone to hit one out. He opened the door for a plethora of African-American players who brought to the majors personalities and skills that the game had been poorer for not having.
Here’s hoping that Black Panther truly becomes for mainstream Hollywood films what Jackie was for big-league baseball: a trailblazer that changes the game permanently and a cultural event that throws open the doors for films from a multitude of cultural backgrounds that help audiences better understand and appreciate the human condition—the entire human condition.
Jackie Robinson did that for baseball. Hopefully, now that the actor who played Robinson has ascended to the throne of Wakanda, Black Panther can do the same for the movies.