Chadwick Boseman’s untimely and surprising death at the age of 43 came at the end of an already tragic week. For most of it, Americans had been all-too-reminded of their tenuous grip on self-rule, as the Republican National Convention confirmed that party’s fervor for their authoritarian, I-am-the-law (and the Republican platform) incumbent. That convention also took place against the backdrop of violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, yet another reminder that Donald Trump can only win by painting his America as Joe Biden’s instead.
Then, just as Americans were finally ready to pivot from the psychopathic Amway sales rally on the White House South Lawn, Boseman’s death reminded Americans of their mortality. Celebrities like Boseman—or Kobe Bryant earlier this year—always seem invincible, particularly in their relative youth. Undoubtedly, Boseman did not die because he lacked highly-sophisticated medical care. And we come to find out that as we cheered him on-screen, he was engaged in a private, individual battle back in our ever-more-sobering reality.
Boseman’s death was noted here for a few reasons. The first is that he was just two months younger than I, both of us soon to turn 44. With a new son-in-law and now two children in college, I continue to acquire the signs and tokens of age. There, but for the grace of God, go I. The second was Boseman’s Black Panther, his A-list role in a comic book movie about themes far deeper than similar fare. But the third reason, the one that merits attention here, is his breakthrough role playing Jackie Robinson in 42.
It is a loose, not-always-followed tradition here to watch the work of an actor or director that passes away. 42 was always my choice after reading about Boseman’s death, and after a few minutes of bargaining with our youngest son we secured a unanimous approval. It takes little critical skill to recognize that a movie about Jackie Robinson will rise and fall on the actor playing Robinson. Boseman succeeds by capturing the seething just below the surface—Robinson is angry, has every right to be angry—and yet, he must not be angry.
To deny one’s own emotions like this is excruciating, and in the crucible of being the focal point of America’s post-war race relations, unfathomable. I’ve seen 42 several times, and every time Alan Tudyk, the actor playing racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman, should be hit over the head with a baseball bat. Instead, the Lords of Baseball orchestrate the famous picture of Robinson and Chapman holding a bat together, a farce in which Robinson reluctantly participates, but only after he makes the rules—the picture must be taken on the field, where everyone can see. Boseman plays this scene with authority, as it is here that Robinson’s patience has given him the upper hand.
And yet, there is a moment just before they both grab the bat where Robinson picks it up, takes his stance, raises it—and Chapman is well within range. The moment is only sensed—Robinson makes no sudden moves and his voice never changes—but it is there, and it feels surprisingly dangerous to imagine Robinson completing his swing.
To remember Robinson’s life in 2020 means drawing the inexorable parallels with our current crisis. A few things stood out. First, Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to go to the back of a military bus. At the time, Robinson was stationed at…Fort Hood, Texas. Of course he was.
Second, in the aftermath of Chapman’s racist on-field tirade, Boseman portrays Robinson going into the clubhouse tunnel to take his frustrations out on a baseball bat. Branch Rickey—played by Harrison Ford playing Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey1Which, I will freely admit, is a highly effective performance. I don’t at all mean it as a criticism, simply an observation.—descends from the stands to remind Robinson that he can’t go after Chapman. In the ensuing conversation, Rickey says “You’re medicine, Jack.” But medicine makes the patient better. 2020’s neo-Confederate politics begs the question of whether anything has improved at all.
Indeed, the movie plays far differently in 2020 than it did in 2013, released to theaters soon after the first Black president’s re-election. At the time, the line between Robinson and Barack Obama was easier to draw, even down to the racism that animated the opposition to each of them. It was hard to foresee that only a few years later, America would trade its political version of Robinson for its version of Ben Chapman. And it only adds insult to injury that Boseman died on the day MLB set aside as Jackie Robinson Day.
Near the end of the movie, Rickey explains his motive for integrating baseball by telling the story of his African-American college teammate, the best hitter on the team. Rickey didn’t do enough to support him—he thought he did at the time, but he knows he didn’t. Rickey explains:
The game I loved had something unfair at the heart of it. I ignored it. But a time came when I could no longer do that.
I will never know what it is like to be Jackie Robinson. How could I? Only Boseman’s performance can give me a taste of that. But what Branch Rickey is saying, I know. I also spent a long time playing a game that had something unfair at the heart of it. Sometimes I ignored it; other times I knew, but did nothing about it; still other times I’m sure I made it worse. I spent years living a lie, having achieved only things in which I did not believe, on behalf of a corrupt cause, surrounded by barely-humans. But a time came when I could no longer do that.2Incidentally, happy anniversary.
Chadwick Boseman’s death is tragic, but he died on his terms.3Robinson died relatively young as well, at 53 of a heart attack. He made entertaining movies; he made powerful ones. Some were both.4Somehow I have not seen Get On Up, and I’m not sure why. He stood for the right things. He used his platform for good. He leaves a legacy true to himself. I mourn his loss, but must admit to being selfishly grateful for every extra day I get to make up for lost time. RIP.