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Chadwick Boseman’s Career Amplified Black Culture, History

The surprise news on Friday of actor Chadwick Boseman’s death at age 43 left his fans and industry peers struggling to take stock of a meteoric career cut short, and the impact of an actor whose work shined a light on Black history and culture.

His acting career began in television in the early 2000s, but the legacy he left on screen largely rests on a streak of movies released in a five-year period, starting in 2013, in which he portrayed a series of Black icons: Jackie Robinson (“42”), James Brown (“Get On Up”), Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”), and the fantastical role that resonated most widely, T’Challa, the King of Wakanda and title hero of “Black Panther.” The 2018 release from Disney ’s Marvel earned $1.3 billion at the global box office. It was the first blockbuster superhero movie led by a Black cast.

In this range of roles “he was not only a conduit to the past and the way African-Americans persevered and pushed through so many challenges, he also represented brightness and the promise of tomorrow” in “Black Panther,” said Rhea Combs, curator of photography and film at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, which has one of Mr. Boseman’s Black Panther costumes in its collection.

Recent projects of Mr. Boseman’s and new ones he had put in motion offer glimpses of his unfulfilled potential in Hollywood. Following his performance in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” as a Vietnam War soldier whose death bonds his comrades, Mr. Boseman will be seen in an adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which Netflix plans to release later this year. He starred as a trumpeter in a band led by the title character, played by Viola Davis. She was among the actor’s many co-stars and admirers who paid tribute to him, including Denzel Washington, who once helped pay for the former Howard University student to attend an acting program at Oxford.

Many expressed astonishment at what Mr. Boseman accomplished while fighting what proved to be a fatal disease; in announcing his death, his family revealed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016.

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