Chadwick Boseman’s best performances beyond Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman passed away two years ago this past August. The 43-year-old actor amassed a number of accolades and awards in his two-decade-long career, ultimately breaking through into mainstream stardom with his leading role in 2018’s Black Panther.

Boseman became a cultural sensation through his portrayal of King T’Challa, pouring his heart into the project and delivering one of the most memorable characters (and movies) in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the sequel to Black Panther and the first in the series to be released following Boseman’s death, premieres this week. The release demands a consideration of the late actor’s memory and legacy. From Jackie Robinson and James Brown to “Stormin’” Norman Holloway, we’ve pulled together a list of Boseman’s best performances beyond T’Challa, and where to watch them.


Justified: “For Blood or Money”

Image: FX

This is the first time I remember seeing Boseman in something. It’s definitely possible I saw his Law & Order or Cold Case episodes, or another procedural, but his turn in “For Blood or Money,” the fourth episode of Justified’s second season, made me actually go “now this guy is someone to remember.”

Boseman plays Ralph “Flex” Beeman, a drug dealer who is friends with Clinton, the brother-in-law of Deputy Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel). Clinton is out on parole, and he shoots Flex in the hand after being rebuffed for a loan. But Flex shows up later on in a funny, tense scene that lets Boseman show the kind of movie star magic we’d see in future roles.

Flex is a gangster, but also an amateur magician (classic Elmore Leonard stuff), and this shooting incident sends him spiraling — how exactly is he supposed to pursue his passion without the use of one of his hands? It’s the right combination of ridiculous and intimidating typical to Justified’s (and Leonard’s) tone, and Boseman’s delivery of “I was going to be a magician, you dick!” is pitch-perfect (as is when he tells Clinton’s parole officer to go “play Donkey Kong”), but there’s a layer of real sadness under the silly line that gets across Flex’s lost dreams of grandeur. —Pete Volk

Justified is available to stream on Hulu.

42

Two men in Dodgers baseball outfits stand next to one another on a baseball field.

Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Jackie Robinson is a rich topic for a movie (Spike Lee wrote a terrific, unproduced script based on Jackie’s autobiography). One of the great Americans and athletes of his time, he’s been a personal hero of mine since childhood (lifelong Dodgers and baseball fan here), but his legacy has often been filtered through the agenda of Major League Baseball and other organizations who want to use his story to show how far we’ve come, rather than how far we have to go, on race relations in and outside of sports.

42 is not a great take on his life, but Boseman is phenomenal in it, able to communicate how hard Jackie worked to contain his rightful rage at the way he was treated (even if the movie focuses more than it should on the white people around him). His physicality portraying an athlete is a preview of what was to come for him — as T’Challa, for sure, but also as James Brown — and it was the second time he had done so, after his debut film role as running back Floyd Little in The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. Boseman alone made 42 watchable for me, and it was one of those moments where you knew you were witnessing the beginning of a movie star. —PV

42 is available to stream on HBO Max.

Get on Up

Chadwick Boseman sings as James Brown in Get on Up

Image: Universal Pictures

Boseman established his movie star confidence in 42, living up to a true American icon, but he went atomically hard in order to fill the shoes of one of music’s greatest performers. Get on Up could have been a by-the-books biopic of singer James Brown with any other actor walking through the script, but it’s completely energized by Boseman’s exuberant, go-for-broke method. To honor Brown, director Tate Taylor (The Help) used the singer’s actual tracks in the film’s various musical set-pieces, leaving Boseman to ground the lip-sync with mannerisms, dance, and buckets of sweat. What went so wrong for Rami Malek’s karaoke-esque performance in Bohemian Rhapsody goes so right for Boseman — to a degree that it often feels like the film’s catching up with him.

Get on Up takes a nonlinear approach to telling Brown’s story, and opens with Boseman as an older, PCP-addled version of the character in 1988 ready to be apprehended by police. It’s the lowest of lows, and Boseman doesn’t sugarcoat it. But the film drifts from Brown’s youth to his rise to stardom, then back to moments where his personality is so demanding he’s even breaking the fourth wall, and it’s all carried by a star capable of such elasticity. Even his stint in the Marvel films didn’t look as demanding as what’s necessary to bring the Godfather of Soul to dimensional life, killing it on stage and spiraling out of control behind the scenes. Get on Up is Boseman working at full capacity. —Matt Patches

Get on Up is available to stream on Netflix.

21 Bridges

A close-up shot of a police detective (Chadwick Boseman) standing next to a woman with a police cruiser in the background.

Image: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

21 Bridges is a convoluted cop thriller with a fun gimmick: Boseman’s NYPD detective Andre Davis gets the entire island of Manhattan shut down in order to stop a pair of fugitives who gunned down a group of police officers from escaping. If you’re looking for a thoughtful meditation on police overreach in America, look elsewhere (as much as 21 Bridges would like you to think otherwise). But if you’re looking for a fast-paced crime thriller anchored by a strong lead performance that completely vindicates the movie’s existence, here it is.

Boseman plays Davis with a determined intensity that fits his status in the narrative as a man against the world. One of the more effective moments in the movie comes early on when he’s caring for his elderly mother, juxtaposing his intensity from earlier scenes with a real sense of tenderness. It’s a shame the movie never returns to those moments, but I get it — this is a loud cop thriller, and it wants to go back to that stuff. Boseman is joined by another great performance from Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) as a reluctant criminal on the run, and when the two of them get to act off each other, 21 Bridges is much more of a treat. —PV

21 Bridges is available to stream on Netflix.

Da 5 Bloods

A man (Chadwick Boseman) seated on a bamboo throne with a backing of tropical leaves.

Image: Netflix

King T’Challa catapulted Chadwick Boseman’s career to the heights of household name stardom in 2018, but in his role in Spike Lee’s 2020 film Da 5 Bloods, the actor delivered what we now recognize as the performance of a lifetime.

Boseman plays “Stormin’” Norman Earl Holloway, the leader of a squad of Black GIs known as the “Bloods,” who is mortally wounded in a firefight against the Viet Cong in 1971. Years later, the four remaining members of the squad return to recover the body of their former commander, as well as the cache of gold they swore to recover one day shortly before Norman’s death.

The poignance and the power of Boseman’s turn as “Stormin’” Norman cannot be overstated. Spike Lee had no knowledge of Boseman’s diagnosis while filming, nor did any of his co-stars. Though seen only briefly in flashbacks and visions throughout Da 5 Bloods, you can feel that Boseman draws from a wellspring of strength, grief, and defiance in the face of death to create a character who stands unassailable in the hearts and memories of those who fought beside him. In the film, Norman is more than just a man; he’s an idea and an ideal, a specter haunting the conscience of Delroy Lindo’s character, Paul, who guides him to forgive himself, let go of his own pain and grief, and be made better for it.

That Boseman would choose this role, in what would ultimately be one of his final on-screen performances, speaks volumes about the man. He wasn’t just a great actor. He was the definition of a “real one,” an authentic human being of indisputable grace and equal depth of character. —Toussaint Egan

Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

a musician lounging on a bench in ma rainey’s black bottom

Photo: David Lee/Netflix

Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play about ambition and racial tension during a 1927 blues recording session has some major problems, mostly revolving around the stage-friendly structure that has many of the characters speaking in long, self-declarative manifestoes, and the drama barreling from 0 to 100 in seconds in far too many scenes. But none of the problems are in the performances, which are mesmerizing — particularly Viola Davis as the famed blues singer of the title, and Boseman as the session player and songwriter who knows he’s talented enough for bigger and better things, if he can just convince the snobby white producers to back him. Produced by Denzel Washington, who mentored Boseman in his early years and paid for him to attend a prestigious acting program, the film feels like a showcase designed to show Davis’ and Boseman’s flexibility, range, and intensity. This was Boseman’s last movie, and he throws himself into it with delicious, frightening fervor, making a full meal out of every furious speech. —Tasha Robinson

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to stream on Netflix.

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