Tribute: Chadwick Boseman

Posted on August 30, 2020 at 9:42 pm

Copyright 2018 Disney
The devastating loss of Chadwick Boseman, who has died of colon cancer at just 43 years old, is almost incomprehensible. The tributes to him from his colleagues and fans struggle to capture his grace, his talent, and his dedication. May his memory be a blessing.

I appeared on KUSI to talk about my two interviews with Boseman and what his legacy will be.

And I shared more about those memories on rogerebert.com, a supplement to the beautiful commentary from Odie Henderson.

My interview with Boseman about “Marshall.” My interview with him about “42.”

The tribute from “Black Panther” writer/director Ryan Coogler is deeply moving:

I inherited Marvel and the Russo Brothers’ casting choice of T’Challa. It is something that I will forever be grateful for. The first time I saw Chad’s performance as T’Challa, it was in an unfinished cut of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. I was deciding whether or not directing BLACK PANTHER was the right choice for me. I’ll never forget, sitting in an editorial suite on the Disney Lot and watching his scenes. His first with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, then, with the South African cinema titan, John Kani as T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to make this movie. After Scarlett’s character leaves them, Chad and John began conversing in a language I had never heard before. It sounded familiar, full of the same clicks and smacks that young black children would make in the States. The same clicks that we would often be chided for being disrespectful or improper. But, it had a musicality to it that felt ancient, powerful, and African.

In my meeting after watching the film, I asked Nate Moore, one of the producers of the film, about the language. “Did you guys make it up?” Nate replied, “that’s Xhosa, John Kani’s native language. He and Chad decided to do the scene like that on set, and we rolled with it.” I thought to myself. “He just learned lines in another language, that day?” I couldn’t conceive how difficult that must have been, and even though I hadn’t met Chad, I was already in awe of his capacity as actor.

I learned later that there was much conversation over how T’Challa would sound in the film. The decision to have Xhosa be the official language of Wakanda was solidified by Chad, a native of South Carolina, because he was able to learn his lines in Xhosa, there on the spot. He also advocated for his character to speak with an African accent, so that he could present T’Challa to audiences as an African king, whose dialect had not been conquered by the West.

I finally met Chad in person in early 2016, once I signed onto the film. He snuck past journalists that were congregated for a press junket I was doing for CREED, and met with me in the green room. We talked about our lives, my time playing football in college, and his time at Howard studying to be a director, about our collective vision for T’Challa and Wakanda. We spoke about the irony of how his former Howard classmate Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing T’Challa’s current arc with Marvel Comics. And how Chad knew Howard student Prince Jones, who’s murder by a police officer inspired Coates’ memoir Between The World and Me.

I noticed then that Chad was an anomaly. He was calm. Assured. Constantly studying. But also kind, comforting, had the warmest laugh in the world, and eyes that seen much beyond his years, but could still sparkle like a child seeing something for the first time.

That was the first of many conversations. He was a special person. We would often speak about heritage and what it means to be African. When preparing for the film, he would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate. “They not ready for this, what we are doing…” “This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us… and bigger!” He would say this to me while we were struggling to finish a dramatic scene, stretching into double overtime. Or while he was covered in body paint, doing his own stunts. Or crashing into frigid water, and foam landing pads. I would nod and smile, but I didn’t believe him. I had no idea if the film would work. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. But I look back and realize that Chad knew something we all didn’t. He was playing the long game. All while putting in the work. And work he did.

He would come to auditions for supporting roles, which is not common for lead actors in big budget movies. He was there for several M’Baku auditions. In Winston Duke’s, he turned a chemistry read into a wrestling match. Winston broke his bracelet. In Letitia Wright’s audition for Shuri, she pierced his royal poise with her signature humor, and would bring about a smile to T’Challa’s face that was 100% Chad.

While filming the movie, we would meet at the office or at my rental home in Atlanta, to discuss lines and different ways to add depth to each scene. We talked costumes, military practices. He said to me “Wakandans have to dance during the coronations. If they just stand there with spears, what separates them from Romans?” In early drafts of the script. Eric Killmonger’s character would ask T’Challa to be buried in Wakanda. Chad challenged that and asked, what if Killmonger asked to be buried somewhere else?

Chad deeply valued his privacy, and I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness. After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us.

I haven’t grieved a loss this acute before. I spent the last year preparing, imagining and writing words for him to say, that we weren’t destined to see. It leaves me broken knowing that I won’t be able to watch another close-up of him in the monitor again or walk up to him and ask for another take.

It hurts more to know that we can’t have another conversation, or facetime, or text message exchange. He would send vegetarian recipes and eating regimens for my family and me to follow during the pandemic. He would check in on me and my loved ones, even as he dealt with the scourge of cancer.

In African cultures we often refer to loved ones that have passed on as ancestors. Sometimes you are genetically related. Sometimes you are not. I had the privilege of directing scenes of Chad’s character, T’Challa, communicating with the ancestors of Wakanda. We were in Atlanta, in an abandoned warehouse, with bluescreens, and massive movie lights, but Chad’s performance made it feel real. I think it was because from the time that I met him, the ancestors spoke through him. It’s no secret to me now how he was able to skillfully portray some of our most notable ones. I had no doubt that he would live on and continue to bless us with more. But it is with a heavy heart and a sense of deep gratitude to have ever been in his presence, that I have to reckon with the fact that Chad is an ancestor now. And I know that he will watch over us, until we meet again.

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Tribute: Carl Reiner

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 2:06 pm

I had the privilege of writing a tribute to one of my all-time favorites, Carl Reiner for rogerebert.com. He was a legend in every possible form of entertainment, as a writer, actor, showrunner, director, and resident wit on social media. From his time in the legendary writers’ room of “Your Show of Shows” alongside Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, and his lifetime best friend Mel Brooks to his 2020 appearance in Pixar’s “Forky Asks a Question” series, his mentorship to newcomers Mary Tyler Moore, Steve Martin, Dick Van Dyke, and many others, his affectionate skewering of popular culture, he was a major force in the culture of more than half a century.

I love this affectionate remembrance from TCM.

Here is one of my favorite moments from what Reiner said was his best creation, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

May his memory be a blessing.

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Movies for the Homebound XIII: Before They Were Famous

Posted on June 23, 2020 at 9:07 am

Copyright Universal 1973
It is fun to look for early appearances of some of today’s biggest stars, including four Avengers.  Here are some great films with the added pleasure of seeing favorite performers before they were famous.

American Graffiti; This classic film about one night in the lives of a group of California teenagers features future stars Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Mackenzie Phillips (the original “One Day at a Time”), and future directors Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith.

“The Frisco Kid: Harrison Ford was not yet a star when he appeared with Gene Wilder in this westerrn about a cowboy and a rabbi.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Viola Davis plays a sympathetic therapist in this semi-autobiographical story about a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression who checks himself into a mental hospital.

School Ties: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck play classmates of a prep school’s star quarterback (Brendan Fraser) who is forced to conceal that he is a Jew.

Cellular: Before he was an Avenger, Chris Evans appeared in this nifty little thriller about a kidnapped woman (Kim Basinger).

Heart and Souls: And before he was an Avenger, Robert Downey Jr. starred in this bittersweet comedy about a man who has to help four souls complete their destiny so that they can get to heaven.

Mississippi Masala: Denzel Washington was already a successful actor, but not yet a major star when he appeared in his sweet love story about a Black American who falls for an immigrant from India, upsetting both of their families.

The Horse Whisperer: Before she was an Avenger, Scarlett Johansson played a traumatized girl whose mother seeks the help of a man who knows how to gentle horses and people.

Hoot: Another future Avenger, Brie Larson, stars in this story about Florida middle schoolers fighting to protect endangered owls.

Southland Tales: I can’t even begin to tell you what this strange and strangely fascinating movie is about. But I can tell you it has a really fun early appearance by Dwayne Johnson (The Rock). With hair.

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Missing the Movie Theater Experience: Filmmakers Remember Their Favorites

Posted on May 16, 2020 at 8:00 am

Someday we’ll be back in movie theaters, enjoying films surrounded by a community of fans. Until then, enjoy this great article from The Guardian with filmmakers remembering some of their favorite movie-going experiences.

Copyright 1959 MGM
Director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”): I must also mention a matinee reissue of North by Northwest 20 years ago at the Lumiere in St Martin’s Lane, an underground cinema in the centre of London that is now a gym. You would go down three or four flights of stairs, shedding the reality of life in London, and find yourself in this gorgeous oval space, like being inside a whale’s ribcage.

Alfred Hitchcock created that film for an audience. He orchestrated their oohs and aahs, when they would lean forward and when they would sit back. This wasn’t about someone on the sofa at home getting distracted by their phone or the doorbell or going to get a drink. The place was full of energy and at the end everyone stood and applauded; just as they did when I saw Slumdog Millionaire at the ArcLight in Los Angeles.

Double Oscar winner Emma Thompson: Superman, 1978. Huge cinema. We were 17. It was exciting, funny and dramatic but, rarest of all, the female lead was as interesting and inspiring as the male even though she couldn’t fly on her own. When I exited the cinema I wanted to feel the way I was feeling at that moment for ever.

Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”): My whole career has been spent trying to replicate the various highs I have had in a cinema. One memorable screening at my local cinema in Somerset was the afternoon I happened to see the 15-certificate Gremlins at the age of 10. My brother and I approached the manager with the novelisation of Gremlins in hand, explaining that, as we had read it, we couldn’t possibly be scared by the actual film. Amazingly, he let us in and the thrill of watching the film, while also thinking I could be thrown out at any moment, was off the charts. I am still chasing that buzz.

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Movie MVPs of 2019: Florence Pugh and Adam Driver (Plus Keanu!)

Posted on December 31, 2019 at 8:00 am

Every year one thing I especially look forward to are the surprises — the actors we have not heard of as the year begins but who will dazzle us with acting skill and cinematic charisma, and to those we think we know but discover all over again as they show us range and ability we had not recognized. This year my acting MVPs are one in each category.

The one who was all but unknown last year but gave us three performances that could not have been more different and each was fully committed, thoughtful, and utterly compelling.

First, she played real-life wrestler Saraya Knight in “Fighting With My Family,” written and directed by Stephen Merchant.

Then, she was Dani in “Midsommer,” one of the year’s most disturbing horror films. She plays a perhaps-demanding but overall normal young women struggling with a devastating loss who joins her sometimes-distant boyfriend (Jack Raynor) at a once-every-90-years summer festival that gets, well, out of hand.

She plays Amy in Greta Gerwig’s gorgeous “Little Women,” giving more depth and heart to the character than in any previous portrayal, including Alcott’s.

All of this makes me very excited about her next film, “Black Widow,” where she plays the sister of Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger.

While we wait, take a look at her earlier performances as Lady Macbeth (not the Shakespeare one, though equally murderous).

And she played Cordelia opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins in “King Lear” (available on Amazon Prime):]

We already knew Adam Driver, of course, from his breakthrough on Lena Dunham’s “Girls” to his appearances as Kylo Ren in two Star Wars movies. But 2019 was another breakthrough for him as he appeared in very different roles in three films.

He was back as Kylo Ren, of course, in “The Rise of Skywalker.”

He played real-life Congressional staffer Daniel Jones, who would not let the record of American abuse of detainees in “The Report” (on Amazon Prime).

And he played a character based on writer-director Noah Baumbach in “Marriage Story” (available on Netflix). The vulnerability he shows in this film is breathtaking. He even sings Sondheim, and it is very moving. His co-star, Scarlett Johansson, has also had a remarkable year with a beautiful performance in this film and what I think is her career best so far in “Jojo Rabbit.”

I was also lucky enough to see him on Broadway in his Tony-nominated performance in “Burn This.” Coming up for him is “The Last Duel,” written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who also co-star, along with “Killing Eve’s” Jodie Comer.

I have to mention Keanu Reeves, as well, who should get some sort of good sport award for playing a gif-worthy heightened version of himself in “Always Be My Maybe,” a different version of himself in “Between Two Firms,” Duke Caboom, an Evel Kenievel-like daredevil doll in “Toy Story 4,” and an unstoppable assassin in “John Wick 3.”

I look forward to more from all of these performers (more Bill and Ted!) but most of all I look forward to the actors we don’t know at all this year but by next December 31 we won’t break able to imagine the movies without them.

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