Hayden Maggard didn’t know he’d be meeting Black Panther until a few hours before. Hayden, who was 13 years old and living with a form of cancer called neuroblastoma, was having a particularly hard week. But that morning in September 2018, he wasn’t thinking about that. Chadwick Boseman, a real-life superhero, an Avenger at that, was on his way, at that very moment, to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. And Hayden’s child life specialist, knowing how much he loved all-things Marvel, had put in a good word—had campaigned, really—so Hayden would be one of the kids who’d get to spend time with Boseman.
He couldn’t stop giggling. But he couldn’t tell a soul. Not even his dad, who was back home in Missouri working that week—his parents switched off so someone was always with him at the hospital in Tennessee.
Finally, the time had come. Boseman, dressed down in a grey sweatshirt but still larger than life, burst into Hayden’s hospital room. It was like time stood still.
The two guys talked about Black Panther and The Avengers. The conversation was light and upbeat. Boseman grinning his signature, ear-to-ear smile; Hayden with shy delight. As they wrapped up their talk and Boseman made his way to the door, he turned and asked Hayden: Was there anything else that would help make his day a little better?
“Well, if you don't mind, if you could tell some of your Avenger friends, I said, hi,” Hayden asked, going for it.
Hayden’s mom, Phyllis Maggard, was sitting next to him and thinking, sure. She was thinking it was like when a kid asks Santa to say hi to the elves at the North Pole.
But Boseman didn’t miss a beat. He answered, “Well, who are your favorites?” Hayden told him Thor and Spider-Man. As soon as the actor left, he tweeted at Chris Hemsworth and Tom Holland who play them in the movies—plus Michael B. Jordan, his Black Panther costar. Hayden told his parents it was one of the best days of his life. He started a countdown for the next movie.
He didn’t see it. On October 26, 2018, six months before Avengers: Endgame came out, Hayden died.
The Maggards thought of Boseman’s visit when they bought tickets for the movie as soon as it came out, as was their tradition with Hayden. They bought an extra ticket and brought their son’s photo, which they placed in between them.
When Matt Maggard read on August 28 that Boseman was living with cancer when he’d met with their son, he started to cry. He even woke up his sleeping wife to tell her the news. Boseman hadn’t told Hayden—or anyone else at St. Jude—that he was living with cancer when he visited in 2018. When Marlo Thomas, the National Outreach Director for St. Jude, thanked Boseman for accepting their invite, for going out of his way to make the trip to Memphis after filming Endgame in Atlanta, he simply said, “I’m happy to help take their mind off of what they’re going through.”
“Nobody understands unless they've been there and how hard it is to go to St. Jude and see these kids in that state and I mean, for a normal, healthy human being to go there and take the tour it's got to be shocking,” Matt said. “But for somebody who's already been diagnosed and going through treatment for two years to go and face that, I mean, that's just incredible.”
Phyllis Maggard said, “When Chadwick got to heaven, I can tell you, my son was right there going, 'OK man, let's discuss the movie. Tell me all the little things that happened and what happened on Endgame.'"
Boseman grew up in Anderson, South Carolina, with his two older brothers and his mom, a nurse, and dad, who worked for an agriculture conglomerate and had an upholstery business. Their family home was lined with books about culture and history. Boseman would thumb through their collection of Encyclopedias to teach himself about people of color who inspired him. He was 12 when he first read his older brother’s copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The family were regulars at the local library and active members of Welfare Baptist Church. To prepare for Sunday mornings, their mother Carolyn would have the boys read through Bible stories in advance.
“We had to read it, and understand it, and be able to verbalize it back to her to her satisfaction before we'd go to bed at night,” says his brother Derrick Boseman, who is now a preacher in Tennessee. “She kind of trained us to be storytellers.”
Boseman was an artist, gifted at drawing and sculpting, and he was a competitive basketball player, always trying to beat his oldest brother Derrick at sports. He also idolized his brother Kevin, who did dance and acting. He’d sit with his mother in the back of the theater watching Kevin perform, and fell in love with theater himself. When a basketball teammate died his senior year, Boseman channeled his feelings into a play he wrote.
Boseman went to Howard University where he was a star student in the directing program. He wrote two plays while in school, including “Hieroglyphic Graffiti,” a hip hop-infused, modern telling of an ancient myth.
“He knew who he was; he had a very strong identity. He was very knowledgeable about the history of African Americans and African civilization,” says Professor Vera Katz, who was Boseman’s advisor. “He was very proud of who he was.”
Boseman was a directing major but took an acting workshop with Phylicia Rashad, who he impressed. She encouraged him to audition for a summer acting program at Oxford, and asked Denzel Washington to help fund him. From there, he decided to pursue acting more seriously, which took him to New York City after graduation. His parents supported him through film school and covered his rent when he couldn’t in those early days.
Early in his acting career he found himself cast in a few soap episodes as a young man who joined a gang. Boseman felt uneasy about what seemed like it could be a cynical, stereotypically written character, so when the network execs brought him in to talk about doing more episodes, he took the opportunity to ask about the character’s backstory. He asked about the man’s parents. Execs told him matter of factly that the character’s father left when he was young and that his mother was a heroin addict. That week, Boseman was let go. His agent told him he seemed “difficult” to the execs. “Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is,” Boseman said when he later recounted the story during a Howard commencement speech, “and how you need to fight it.”
From that point on, Boseman was picky. He would choose characters who he was proud to play—characters who were socially significant; men who made a difference. It would be years before it paid off. But it finally did when he was cast as the lead, the great Jackie Robinson, in 42.
He learned how to play baseball. He learned how to dance, embodying James Brown in Get on Up. From there, he became the first African American on the Supreme Court in Marshall. And then came T’Challa.
Even though he was playing a superhero, Boseman fought to make T’Challa human—starting with his accent. Marvel reportedly wanted the character to have an English or American accent, but Boseman insisted he have an African one. "It felt to me like a deal-breaker," he told The Hollywood Reporter, "I was like, 'No, this is such an important factor that if we lose this right now, what else are we gonna throw away for the sake of making people feel comfortable?'" The movie quickly went on to become the highest ever grossing superhero movie in the U.S.
Boseman had never been more in demand. But he kept choosing projects—his stories—carefully.
“You become more and more selective because you realize how much it takes out of you,” Boseman told Hunger magazine in 2017. “Some days you come home and you realize there’s this extra psychological energy that you’ve been using to stay in that place for an entire day. You feel the fatigue of carrying around this other way of thinking, this different body, this different life. It can be emotional, it can be physical and sometimes there’s a little bit of trauma with that.
“By the end of the process you just want to get to the place where you’re no longer carrying the weight of that person. So, when you choose the roles I think you’re very selective about it because you value your time on this earth. It’s so valuable because you’re spending four or five or six months with this character, if not longer. You make those choices very, very carefully.”
What he didn’t say was that a year before that interview—somewhere between James Brown and Thurgood Marshall—he’d been diagnosed with colon cancer. Very few knew. Boseman didn’t want people to worry about him, said his oldest brother Derrick.
When you read back through interviews now it’s clear how little Boseman actually revealed about his private life. It wasn’t just his illness he kept to himself. He kept his warm, observational sense of humor to himself. He did impressions. He loved sports. He was always reading. On a trip to Tuscany with friends in 2016, he sat outside, doing martial arts by himself for hours and reading. He was comfortable in his own skin. He was spiritual. He was a supportive friend. And he was great with kids.
In 2018, at the height of Black Panther mania, Boseman returned to Washington, DC, to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver the commencement speech at his alma mater, Howard University. He was a few minutes late starting because as he got to the stage, one of the trustees’ kids was staring in awe, so Boseman suggested they take one last picture.
Coming home was always nerve-wracking for him. The night before Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick and Boseman went out for dinner, and Frederick pointed out to Boseman that Jackie Robinson, who Boseman played in his breakout role in 42, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both received honorary degrees from Howard on the same day.
“He took a lot of pride in it,” Frederick says. “Through that conversation, I learned he was a writer as well, and that he had written a lot. I think that also gave him a perspective of being very, very thoughtful and intentional about doing the right things around how he portrayed people who, as he felt, were representing his own heritage.”
Later that year, Boseman began preparing for 21 Bridges, an action movie about the hunt for two men who killed police officers in a drug heist. He wasn’t playing an icon this time, but Boseman was a producer, working with director Brian Kirk to give depth and nuance to a genre film. Boseman had a hand in shaping many of the characters he played, but now he was getting the credit for it.
In late 2018, the men went to police stations around New York City, talking to hostage negotiators, homicide detectives, those from SWAT teams. The plan was to stay for an hour—it was 8 a.m. and Boseman had just gotten off the plane and had barely slept. Boseman asked about hostage scenarios, provocations, reactions—they stayed for nine hours.
“His skill as an actor was connected to his appetite as a storyteller,” says Kirk. “The two things weren't separate and that he understood instinctively that the audience experienced the story of a movie through the protagonist of a movie. And that there's a symbiosis between story and performance in movies. And so he definitely was somebody who considered the character in relation to the story, as opposed to just what this guy would be doing in a vacuum.”
The film was shot in just 40 days, which meant long, hard takes. Boseman never told Kirk what he was going through privately.
“I was worrying about making a movie, he was worrying about much more profound things … He really did regard filmmaking as a sacred occupation,” Kirk says. “I've talked to Joe Russo and I was like, did you have any trace of it? The guy must have been carrying this throughout every movie we made together, and he was such a natural leader and such a protector of the projects that he was involved in, that none of us had a clue.”
From 21 Bridges, Boseman went into the filming for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods in Thailand. Boseman plays an integral role in the epic—Stormin’ Norman, a fallen Vietnam soldier who was the core of his squad. His first day on set, Boseman filmed one of the most important scenes: an emotional moment of forgiveness between Boseman and Delroy Lindo’s characters. Boseman came completely prepared, and in between takes remained laser focused. But when he wasn’t filming, he bonded with the rest of the cast. When temperatures soared past 100 degrees, Boseman and his partner Taylor Simone Ledward brought Super Soaker water guns to set one particularly balmy afternoon.
“It was their idea to ambush Spike with the water guns,” Lindo said in a Facebook post. “If he was sick—he wasn’t letting it take his Joy For Living. It was also a great example of how effortlessly and organically Chadwick became 'one of us', one of the Bloods in the acting company.”
Through surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, work continued on. At the end of his life, Boseman was filming the adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Denzel Washington, who funded Boseman’s trip to Oxford decades ago, is the producer. And with his producing partner Logan Coles, Boseman was working on the story of Yasuke, Japan’s first Black samurai.
As Boseman shot to the highest levels of fame, he remained close with his family, who say the attention never went to his head.
“He remained the same person privately. He remained the same person. Everybody calls him Chadwick—but to us, he was Chad,” Derrick says. “Chadwick is his given name, but it's like Chadwick was the Hollywood person. But Chad never changed. He was always humble. He didn't like the celebrity stuff. I would be with him, and somebody would recognize him, and he would say that he wasn't him, that he just looked like him, and that a lot of people would mistake him for being Chadwick Boseman, but that's not who he was. He would defer. Or he would run from it. He didn't like the adoration. He actually thought it was silly and it didn't make sense.”
In March, Boseman had a grueling 16-hour surgery. It was early days of the COVID lockdowns, and his family boarded nearly empty airplanes to be with him. As Boseman recovered, he had one thing on his mind. He spent days writing and editing a 25-page manifesto which he called “the Grocery List.” It was for his family.
“It was based off of what he felt was orders from God on how we needed to eat and be prepared during the pandemic. And it was foods that he suggested that we all purchase, that he was willing to, and he did, send money to family members who maybe didn't have the means to be prepared during the pandemic,” Derrick says. “And he spent days, and days, and days writing this thing, and editing it, and making phone calls to family members, and emailing it out to everybody so that everybody had it in their hands, so that everybody could be prepared for that season when people were buying up everything off of the shelves … Family was the most important thing to him.”
In the following months, Boseman continued to champion causes he cared about, too. In late June, he was one of over 300 Black Hollywood figures to sign a letter initiated by actor Kendrick Sampson demanding the entertainment industry divest from police—a response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Black Lives Matter movement. And when his friend, billionaire film producer Thomas Tull told him he wanted to, in honor of Jackie Robinson day, raise money for African American communities hit hardest by COVID, Boseman offered to be the face of the efforts, recording a video posted to Instagram.
“In the last couple of weeks we’ve found that the statistics for COVID-19 has shown that the African American community has been hit the hardest, the Latino community has been hit the hardest, and that’s partially because we’re the frontline workers. We’re the ones still going to work, we’re the ones still driving the buses, working at hospitals. We’re the EMTs, we’re the ones going to battle everyday” said Boseman, in a blue baseball cap emblazoned with the number 42. The video quickly racked up views, helping #Operation42 to trend. Like so many times in his career, Boseman harnessed his fame, used it to direct attention to people he thought needed it more than him. But this time his own story seeped into the narrative. Many comments on Boseman’s video focused on his weight loss. It bothered him. He talked about it when he spoke with Tull the next day. But still, he was happy about the attention to the fundraiser, which ended up helping to raise the $4.2 million donated to communities impacted by COVID. The video would be his last public appearance.
The last time Tull saw Boseman, though, was before the lockdowns. Boseman was passing through Pittsburgh with his fiancée, and they stopped by Tull’s home. Ledward went inside to talk with Tull’s wife, Alba, and play with their kids. Boseman and Tull hung back outside to catch up. They talked about work, and Boseman’s engagement.
Tull asked how he was doing.
“I knew he was sick. That was obvious,” Tull says. “And frankly, when I asked him … I just said, ‘Hey man, are we doing OK?’ And he just said, ‘Yep. Getting through it. Getting through it.’”
In late August, while he was watching the news with his family, Boseman learned about Jacob Blake, the Black man in Wisconsin who was shot in the back seven times by a police officer.
“We have to do something about that,” Boseman said to his family.
His fight for social justice remained Boseman’s priority, as did his faith.
"To the very end, I never heard him blame God for it, or even complain about it. I mean, we would have prayer sessions, family prayer. And he would always say, "Hallelujah. Hallelujah." So he always praised God, even through his illness and his sickness. That never ended."
It’s rare for a public figure as famous as Boseman to succeed in protecting their private life as he did. Many parts of the media feed off of celebrity news exclusives.
“Whomever he confided in, to be a person of such character and nobility that there were no leaks— that in itself speaks volumes about his character,” said veteran actor Stephen Henderson, who knew Boseman from his early days starting out in New York. “It's a testament to the fact that when people encountered him, they saw a man with a purpose. It would have been sacrilegious to have tampered with that divine mission that he was on.”
The social media post announcing his death revealed, for the first time, a slice of what Boseman had been going through. That the colon cancer he’d been diagnosed with in 2016 had progressed to stage IV, and that many of his roles had been filmed during chemotherapy treatments. And that he’d died in his home with Ledward, who he’d quietly married at the end of his life, and his family.
The public reaction was overwhelming. The social media post announcing his death quickly set the record for the most-liked on Twitter. There were countless tributes by those who knew Boseman, and more who never met him, like the children hosting funerals for their Black Panther figurines. The loss of Boseman is profound. There’s also the cultural loss of a man who had more stories to tell and ran out of time.
“In our last conversation about work he said to me, ‘Tell ‘em what we did. Tell them all the work that was done and what I had to go through to tell those stories,’” his producing partner Logan Coles wrote in an essay for The Root. “I said I would, but holding out hope I also added, ‘But I want us to do it together bruh, like we’d set out to do all those years ago. We’ve got so many un-shot screenplays, too many unproduced movies. All these dope ideas of stories to tell about Black folks that we want the world to see.’ … In that last conversation he also said to me, “…you better not stop, hear me?’ And I nodded and simply replied, ‘OK’.”
When I asked Derrick Boseman what he wanted the world to know about his brother, he spoke about the family’s private burial. Their family is a big one, spread out across the country, but one that’s close, private, and has been quietly supporting Boseman from the beginning—when he had a new film, the family would buy out theaters across the country to celebrate the premiere. After Boseman’s death, hundreds of the family members came together to honor his life.
“He had to overcome a lot of things in his life. I did his eulogy, and I remembered him as a little boy. He was a beautiful baby. He looked perfect, but in reality he had a hernia that he had to overcome as a little baby. His feet were turned out as a little baby, and he had to wear bars on his legs. But he still crawled, even with bars on his legs. He had to overcome a lot of things even as a child. He had asthma really, really bad. But he still played basketball,” Derrick said. “He didn't ever let anything stop him. He died the way that he lived.”
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