Chadwick Boseman Used as Election-Year Pawn

Chadwick Boseman at the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, Calif., in 2018. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

His eulogists ignore his creativity and instead use him as an election-year pawn, with race as a political, cultural football.


ho was Chadwick Boseman? The late actor’s death at age 43 changed his public image from human or artist into an example, a political football. Almost immediately after the grave announcement, the Democratic Party media began to create a demagogic legend that used Boseman’s most impressive work as a performer to position him as a propaganda figure. Michelle Obama, in her Evita-noir way, took the lead, tweeting:

Only Chadwick Boseman could embody Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and T’Challa. He, too, knew what it meant to persevere. To summon real strength. And he belongs right there with them as a hero—for Black kids and for all our kids. There’s no better gift to give our world.

Conspicuously absent from Michelle’s praise was Boseman’s finest characterization, as soul music artist James Brown in the 2014 film Get On Up. Michelle praised obvious social-justice landmarks — breaking baseball’s color bar, Supreme Court justice, and fantasy figure — because politically independent Brown doesn’t fit today’s progressive agenda. There’s too much “git down” in Brown’s music and personality for Kalorama and Martha’s Vineyard, and too much intransigent freedom in Boseman’s wildly creative portrayal for it to work effectively as a Millennial role model. (Barack Obama had also ignored Get On Up, choosing the hipster mockumentary Boyhood as his favorite film of 2014.) Boseman’s individuality was subordinated to the usefulness of a political identity.

Following Michelle’s dictate, the Democratic media machine went to work creating various tributes to Boseman with the same alacrity as when they used the passing of other black celebrities, from Aretha Franklin to John Lewis, as pretexts for widely broadcast partisan rallies. This climaxed with ABC-TV’s Tribute to a King, an hour-long special emphasizing, as Michelle did, Boseman’s role in the ABC-Disney corporation’s Marvel film Black Panther. This show featured liberal tributes from, among others, corporate head Bob Iger, James Baldwin epigone Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

Harris had already tweeted that Boseman showed “millions of black and brown children the power of a superhero who looks like them.” Her social-justice calculation ignored yellow and red and white children in the same manner as Michelle. Their objective was to limit Boseman’s effectiveness to that of a political tool in liberals’ new segregation movement.

Boseman deserved better, because he gave better. Instead, he got misrepresentation. The Boseman eulogies, like those draped over Aretha Franklin, were evidence of how the media manipulates race, politics, and the arts to control public attitudes. (The speed of such programming is astonishing, as if advance teams stand ready for rhetorical war.) Rather than probe the idiosyncrasies of Boseman’s talent, and the mystery and coincidence of his biopic filmography distinguished by impersonations of such legendary figures as Robinson, Brown, and Marshall, politicians and their media minions retrofitted his career as one based on a partisan program no different from the sinewy, forward-looking archetypes in socialist-realist art.

These too-late homages reveal the actual, unrelenting racism of our media class. The fact is, Boseman’s ingenious Great Men portraits arrived before they were politically useful — and thus were generally dismissed. Jewish theater legend Paul Muni won the film industry’s awe with his similarly impressive portrayals of Émile Zola, Louis Pasteur, and Benito Juárez. But that was back when Hollywood was interested in teaching and extolling Western civilization. By eschewing the pimp, drug-dealer, ex-con, deadbeat-dad roles that contemporary Hollywood prescribes for black actors — by not playing victims — Boseman avoided the new stereotypes. So Oscar nominations went to other actors who played the political patsies of 12 Years a Slave, Get Out, Moonlight, and Green Book, proof that the newly “diverse” and representative Motion Picture Academy actually disdained Boseman’s achievements. His quick moves and vocal inflections as Brown, his prudent cautious pride as Robinson, and the sartorial élan that complemented legal ingenuity as Marshall were all disregarded.

In the Black Lives Matter era, the yardstick for black artists has been lowered to Michelle and Kamala’s “look like themselves” standard. Talent, charisma, and imagination no longer matter, it seems, as proven by remarks about Boseman’s physical change due to illness: the wiry body and intensely focused eyes that recently looked gaunt and vacant at public appearances. Tabloid journalists, uninterested in art or skill, focused on Boseman’s career struggles while fighting cancer, proving again our crude media’s inability to appreciate an artist’s spiritual and historical ambitions.

Twitter fans who had also ignored the biopics concentrated on Boseman’s televised tribute to Denzel Washington — a real demonstration of how the media twists public awareness away from art toward celebrity worship. This bizarre circumstance leads to false acclaim for Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther.

To commemorate Boseman as the fictitious T’Challa, king of fantasyland Wakanda, perpetuates the sci-fi comic-book inanity of Black Panther and of childish Afrocentricity. Michelle’s high-five recalled the moment a Nineties hip-hop group naïvely paid tribute to “Miss Jane Pittman” as honoring an actual historical personage. The confusion arising from Black Panther is worse. ABC-Disney’s “Tribute to a King” follows the same monarchic fallacy as Beyoncé’s Black Is King “visual album,” based on the delusion that African Americans descend from royalty and are denied their rightful prominence. (None of the media pallbearers mentioned how Boseman’s name echoes both slave-owner and slave antecedents.)

Marvel’s Black Panther did real damage by detaching history and social awareness from reality, and that insidious form of demagoguery is continued by politicians and media who are desperate to win over voters by appealing to separatist, tribal myths — and, as per ABC-Disney’s televised ceremony, by constantly pandering to black Americans as children. (This infantilization also affects white youths infatuated with Black Lives Matter/Antifa.) It’s no mystery why Boseman’s passing has been stage-managed like an arranged marriage among monarchists; the young theater aspirant born in South Carolina, who studied drama at both Howard and Oxford universities, is now a pawn in the game of election-year politics.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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