The world is still reeling from the sudden and tragic death of Chadwick Boseman on August 28, 2020. The actor and advocate, best known for his role as T’Challa in Black Panther, passed away from colon cancer. But while the news of his death took the world by surprise, Boseman had been battling the disease since 2016, never speaking publicly about his condition, per Associated Press.
Even Boseman’s closest collaborators had no idea that he had cancer. Legendary director Spike Lee, who worked with Boseman shortly before his death on the film Da 5 Bloods, confirmed on Instagram that “nobody knew” about the late actor’s condition while filming. Although Boseman’s gaunt appearance in one video on Instagram in April 2020 did cause concern among fans, no one could have imagined what the actor was privately dealing with.
There was, however, a very small, trusted group of Boseman’s friends and family that knew what he was battling, and, respecting his wishes, helped him keep the secret. Now, after his death, Boseman’s longtime agent Michael Greene is speaking out about what prompted Boseman to keep his health under wraps.
Chadwick Boseman didn't want people to 'fuss over him'
Michael Greene told The Hollywood Reporter that it was Chadwick Boseman’s upbringing, and specifically the lessons of his mother, that encouraged him to keep his diagnosis private. Greene shared that Boseman’s mother, Carolyn, “always taught him not to have people fuss over him.” Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, President of Boseman’s alma mater Howard University, corroborated Greene’s assessment. Frederick said of Boseman, “One of his greatest attributes was never burdening anyone else, but being there to shoulder everyone else’s burdens.”
There was another, more pragmatic, reason that Boseman chose to keep his illness a secret: a fear about how people in the industry would treat him if they knew how sick he was, especially as his condition worsened. Greene recalled that Boseman “felt in this business that people trip out over things, and he was a very, very private person.” Many of Boseman’s roles, including T’Challa in Black Panther and Andre Davis in 21 Bridges, were highly physical, and had casting agents been worried about his health, it is possible they would have chosen another actor.
Boseman’s decision meant that sometimes there would be days on set when he would be in severe pain, but he worked through it anyway. Greene said that on the set of the upcoming Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the actor was in “really in hard-core pain,” but the material was “so exciting to him” that it inspired him to keep working.
Chadwick Boseman wanted to help others like him
Though Chadwick Boseman kept his cancer diagnosis a secret, he used his unique position to help others who were battling illnesses, often terminal ones. Boseman shared a story while promoting Black Panther of two terminally ill children who were so excited to see the movie. Getting visibly choked up, Boseman said, “Their parents said ‘They’re trying to hold on until this movie comes.'” Even though they didn’t know about his diagnosis, the children still saw themselves in Boseman and looked up to not just the character, but the man behind T’Challa as well.
Boseman often visited children who were sick, including a visit to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in 2018. The hospital reflected on his visit after his death in a sentimental Instagram post following the actor’s death, calling him “an incredible role model for our patients and for children all over the world.” Recalling his visit, the account said, “Chadwick visited the St. Jude campus and brought with him not only toys for our patients but also joy, courage, and inspiration.”
Chadwick Boseman's legacy lives on in the kids he inspired
For the staff at St. Jude’s, Chadwick Boseman’s 2018 visit was especially memorable. Rick C. Shadyac, Jr., President and CEO of the hospital’s fundraising branch, recalled to People magazine that Boseman “had just finished filming Avengers: Endgame in Atlanta and made a special stop in Memphis while on his way back to Los Angeles.” The visit was personal for the actor. “He wanted to visit our patients,” Shadyac Jr. told People, “who come from across the world and are in treatment for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.”
Shadyac Jr. still remembers the atmosphere in the hospital when Boseman came to visit. St. Jude’s is fairly used to celebrity visits, but this time was different. “When word got out that Chadwick was in the hospital and that he would be attending a special art party with patients, every child at St. Jude’s wanted to meet him,” Shadyac Jr. reminisced. “That day, when his time with us was drawing to a close and the line of St. Jude patients was still long, Chadwick insisted on staying until he had the chance to greet every single patient.”
It wasn’t only the kids at St. Jude’s that Boseman inspired, though — he inspired children everywhere, especially young Black kids. One Twitter user shared a viral photo of his son doing the Wakanda salute with the caption “MY BABY BOY AND THE AVENGERS HOLDING A MEMORIAL FOR BLACK PANTHER.”
While the world still processes Boseman’s tragic death, they remember his strength and poise, even in the face of the unimaginable.
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