Uncaging the Panthers: A Tribute to Chadwick Boseman

by Daniel A. Rosen |

As a white guy in prison, it’s tricky to talk about racial issues, but I’m going to proceed anyway.

There was a Friday afternoon a couple years ago, a little wave of excitement and anticipation rippled through my prison dorm. Word had come from the rec workers, who were always in the know: the movie on the in-house channel that weekend would be “Black Panther.” And it’d be showing all weekend long.

Whoops of joy echoed around the dorm. Even the older guys who’d been down a long time seemed interested, though they acted more nonchalant. Those without their own TV found someone to watch with or set up a chair in the dayroom, and homemade headphone splitters became a valuable commodity.

Usually, the institutional movies were lame 80’s and 90’s rom-coms and animated fare – few bothered to tune in. But this was huge, unprecedented. They never showed us the latest summer blockbusters. If there was one movie that hands down the vast majority of the compound was itching to see, this was it.

Of course, the majority of inmates there were Black, as in most American prisons. Blacks make up less than one sixth of the population but half of all those incarcerated. In fact, African-Americans are six times more likely than whites to end up behind bars. And fully one in ten Black men right now are either behind bars or on probation. Walk into any jail or prison in America and these statistics will stare you in the face.

Anyway, I don’t think I was the only one surprised at the choice of weekend entertainment. Having seen only the trailer, we all knew that it might get some of the more excitable young folks a little riled up. The prison usually avoided anything with racial justice themes. The Aryan Brothers and wanna-be’s did some nervous muttering about that, but nothing more.

When the clock finally ticked around to 7pm on Friday, no one was talking on the phones, the card tables were empty, the showers off. People skipped church and school that evening. Kitchen workers who usually stretched their hours cleaning up after dinner rushed back to ensure showers before evening count.

The buttery smell of microwave popcorn permeated the air. We relished anything that let us pretend we were “out there” in the free world, like popcorn at the movies. This was a bona fide event.

During the movie, it was gleefully rowdy but all eyes were glued to the screen. Grown men rooted for comic book heroes as they did when they were kids. Just like in theatres across America, jaws dropped at the costumes, the scenery, the fight scenes – but also at the fully realised vision of a different world where dark skin was regal, and Black men and women were treated with dignity. It let people escape their dingy surroundings, even just briefly. These young guys all wanted to be the Panther; they saw a better version of themselves in Chadwick Boseman’s principles and his heroics.

Afterwards, the 20-something year olds were all running around, throwing their arms across their chests and their heads back, shouting: “Wakanda Forever!” at each other. At everyone. I’ve never seen inmates before or since feel empowered like that.

Their exuberance was infectious and understandable. For many, who grew up in poor inner-city circumstances like the Panther’s cousin and movie nemesis played by Michael B. Jordan, I think the world shifted a bit. Maybe they saw a different vision of blackness that was unlike the usual portrayals of thugs and criminals in the movies and on TV.

In fact, that might be Chadwick Boseman’s lasting legacy and gift to us. Not just showing us a Black superhero, but his portrayals of real Black heroes – Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown too – extraordinary Americans, each of whom broke barriers and changed perceptions of what excellence meant in jurisprudence, sport, and music. Boseman brought them all to life, at a time when this country so badly needs tangible reminders of how much Black men matter – that they too make America great and deserve respect.

Race can be a funny thing in prison, at least where I’ve been locked up. Most of the officers are black, and many of the civilian staff like nurses, counselors, housing unit managers, and wardens are too. Often you’ll see them show overt favoritism to black inmates, and whites get a taste of what it feels like to be discriminated against.

Black inmates can get away with infractions that whites or Latinos don’t. They get preference in hiring and little favors from guards and staff. And as a white man, you can’t be angry at that – where else will blackness be an advantage? Besides Wakanda, of course.

The man who personified a better Black society may be gone, but a lot of the men I live with had their eyesight altered forever by a movie that Friday night. You can’t be what you can’t see, it’s been said, and that night they saw that Black men could be superheroes.

Wakanda showed us a beautiful vision that’ll live forever, at least on the screen. We can best honor Chadwick Boseman’s passing by doing as the Panther did at the film’s end – making sure its ideals find a more firmly-rooted home in this country.

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