The shock of Chadwick Boseman’s death from colon cancer — a rare disease in someone so young — is compounded by another rarity: He kept his suffering secret.
He had dignity.
The latter is nearly extinct in our culture of physical, emotional and psychological oversharing, where everything from nude selfies to sexual peccadilloes to medical diagnoses are offered up for public consumption, whether we want it or not.
Let’s take Public Offender No. 1, Lena Dunham. Just this past May, two months into our pandemic-induced lockdown, Dunham was photographed walking the streets of L.A. pushing an IV drip stand with one hand and holding a fresh cup of coffee in the other. Which is it: deathly ill or in need of a caffeine fix? Either way: Worth risking your life to go outside at that moment? Or was she just that in need of a paparazzi fix and the chance to go viral?
Months earlier, Dunham was photographed in a nightgown, walking with a cane, looking intentionally frowzy.
“I need support from more than just my friends,” she wrote in part on Instagram. “And yes, you’d better believe I’m wearing my nightgown. I was walking four feet to the car to go to the doctor and I wanted to be full cozy.”
Dunham has also revealed she has Ehler-Danlos syndrome in addition endometriosis, fibromyalgia, hair loss, anxiety, OCD, a Klonopin addiction which led to sobriety, plus a hysterectomy against her doctor’s advice and COVID-19.
These disclosures have hardly endeared her to the public. If anything, their variety and multiplicity seem suspicious, desperate attempts to garner sympathy and attention — at a time when most of us are really, really struggling.
Dunham, of course, isn’t unique. Kim Kardashian breaks the Internet with her bare ass. Kanye West announces to an anonymous crowd that he almost aborted his first-born daughter. Celebrities take naked selfies, or selfies on the toilet, or in their hospital beds, or in labor, or (Dunham again) strapped in at the gynecologist.
Celebrities tell us when they’ve had breast implants put in or taken out, what size and when (Chrissy Teigen, Angelina Jolie, Gisele Bünchen, Victoria Beckham). Yolanda Hadid documented her breast implant removal “journey” on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” along with her Lyme disease struggle.
Reality TV itself has only accelerated and ratified a culture barreling toward the end of a concept known as TMI (too much information). Deaths, divorces, arrests, bankruptcies, adultery, mental illnesses, active addictions — all are now standard storylines in reality TV franchises, these so-called stars willing to suffer the most intimate disclosures and humiliations in exchange for fame.
When such things no longer cost, when tragedies no longer render us humble or smarter or more mindful of what really matters, society loses its bearing.
Chadwick Boseman proved otherwise. Here was a man who could have disclosed his illness at any time, none more appropriate than during or after visits to young children battling cancer, yet he did not. He didn’t leak it. He didn’t set up paparazzi to shoot him outside a hospital, let alone take a selfie while getting chemo. Boseman didn’t make cryptic allusions on Twitter or Instagram. He didn’t tell a single colleague, not even his “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, who would surely have had a stuntman do Boseman’s most grueling physical work.
Boseman did all the stunts himself and never complained.
“We were in 104 degree weather, running with equipment up to 40 pounds on our backs, going through these scenes, and that young man . . .” said Black Panther co-star Clarke Peters, before breaking down in tears. “I’m sorry.”
There’s a reason Boseman’s final tweet before dying is now the most-liked post in Twitter’s history.
As of Monday afternoon, a clip in which Boseman talked about communicating with two little boys battling cancer, their diagnosis terminal, and how they told him they were fighting to live long enough to see “Black Panther” — a fight both boys lost — was viewed almost 9 million times.
By then, Bosewick knew he had cancer too, which makes what he said, and how he said it, all the more genuine and heartbreaking.
“It’s a humbling experience, because you’re like, ‘This can’t mean that much to them,’ ” Bosewick said. “But seeing how the world has taken this on, seeing how the movement, how it’s taken on a life of its own, I realized that they anticipated something great. And I think back now to [being] a kid, and just waiting for Christmas to come, waiting for my birthday to come, waiting for a toy . . . or a video game, I did live life waiting for those moments. And it put me back in the mind of being a kid. Just to experience those two little boys’ anticipation of this movie, and when I found out that they . . .”
Here Boseman sighed and struggled to compose himself.
“Yeah. It means a lot.”
Much has been said about Boseman as an actor and a movie star, but the common refrain has been his decency, his kindness, his strength, and a regal bearing that made him perfect to play not just iconic black men such as James Brown and Jackie Robinson but the first African king our children would ever see.
In keeping his diagnosis private, by treating it with the gravity and sensitivity it deserved, Boseman proved more regal than we knew.
And that is a hero.
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